By Natasha Devon, MBE
Tomorrow, mental health campaigner, Natasha Devon, will write to every major publication in the UK and ask them to pledge allegiance to a brand new Mental Health Media Charter for reporting on mental health stories. The set of rules is a framework for publications, designed to encourage responsible representations of mental health and mental illness. Here, she writes about why this campaign is long overdue…
For years, the media has been churning out the same lazy and irresponsible crap about mental health. Whether it’s counterproductive ‘awareness raising’ on eating disorders and self-harm which read like an instruction manual, implying that all people with mental illnesses are potentially violent criminals or using the term ‘committed suicide’, the press have truly fallen into some truly terrible habits. As a writer, I have one metaphorical foot in the world of media and my experience tells me most of these misdemeanours aren’t deliberate. The majority of the journalists, editors and presenters I mix with aren’t in the business of purposefully increasing stigma. Yet, wearing my other ‘hat’ as a campaigner and educator on mental health, body image and gender equality I know the extent to which language and imagery matters.
Natasha Devon, MBE
In just the same way as fashions flow from catwalk to celebrities to high street, so mythologies around social issues slip seamlessly from mainstream media, via social media and into general vernacular, in turn affecting our behaviours and attitudes.
That’s why, to mark World Mental Health day this year I’m launching what is probably my most ambitious campaign to date. With help from the Samaritans, Mental Health First Aid (MHFA) England and Beat, I’ve compiled a list of seven incredibly simple and easy-to-adhere-to guidelines (Mental Health Media Charter) for media outlets to make the imagery and language they use around mental health responsible, genuinely educational and stigma-reducing. I’ve enlisted the help of Girlguiding advocates, the Coalition for Men & Boys, the Labour Campaign for Mental Health, Time to Change’s young champions and more than 100 independent bloggers, youtubers and social media users to help me spread the word.
— Daily Mirror (@DailyMirror) September 15, 2014
The Mental Health Media Charter is below – There’s nothing on it, in my opinion, that any reasonable person could object to. Each point is evidence based and in some cases has been shown to preserve life when implemented in areas with high suicide rates. I’ve even made it super-easy for fast paced, high-pressure newsrooms by adding the words ‘do our best’ – I appreciate the odd headline might slip through the net. Of course there will be cries of ‘freedom of speech’. But this argument is only really valid if people understand the implications of the language they’re currently using and wish it to have the resultant effect. Why would newspapers and tv shows want to induce copycat behaviours in people potentially vulnerable to eating disorders, self-harm or suicide? Why would they want to increase the fear and stigma around mental illness by propagating the myth that people who experience them are more harmful to others than they are to themselves? Why would they want to carry on saying ‘commit suicide’ when it hasn’t been a crime to take your own life since the 1960s? If you can make a genuine case for any of these, please do feel free to get in touch.
On 10th October 2017 I’ll be issuing a written invitation to ever major publication in Britain, inviting them to sign. Thereafter, I’ll be keeping a public log detailing who has responded and what they have said. I’ve often heard the problem with World Mental Health Day campaigns is that there’s a flurry of activity around the day itself and then they disappear, but this campaign can run and run. I’ve got the rest of my lifetime.
For those of you who want to support the charter, spread the word or lobby a particular media outlet follow twitter account @MHMediaCharter, use the hashtag #MHMediaCharter on other social media or get in touch via my website (www.natashadevon.com). You can even sign up your own blog or youtube channel (Not Plant Based have!) and receive your special ‘stamp’ (designed by brilliant illustrator Rubyetc).
As supporters of the charter, NOT PLANT BASED will do our best not to:
Use the phrase ‘commit suicide’ or ‘successful suicide’.
The term ‘commit’ suggests criminality and blame. We now understand that suicide happens when pain exceeds resources for coping with pain. It is not a criminal act in the UK and has not been since 1961. ‘Successful suicide’ contravenes what we now understand about the act – Most people who take their own life are ambivalent in that part of them wants to live.
Better alternatives: ‘Attempted/completed suicide’, ‘took/ended their own life’, or even ‘killed themselves’.
Show images which could be triggering to people who have eating disorders or who self-harm.
For people who are in a healthy mindset, seeing pictures of people who are very underweight or who have self-harmed can act as a deterrent. However, for people who are either experiencing, or in recovery from eating disorders or self-harm we now understand that these pictures can become something to ‘aspire to’.
Use the term ‘anorexics’, ‘bulimics’, ‘depressives’ or ‘schizophrenics’….
It is important to understand that a person is distinct from their illness. To label someone an ‘anorexic’ for example, suggests that they are defined by their eating disorder. This is not only unhelpful in terms of the way they are perceived by others but it might also hinder their recovery process.
Better alternative: ‘people experiencing anorexia/bulimia/depression/psychosis’.
Avoid giving too much detail on suicide/self-harm or eating disorder methodology.
We now understand that giving a lot of detail about how people have harmed themselves can inspire copycat behaviour – There is a delicate balance to be struck with your responsibility to report the facts of the case. For example, it is acceptable to say someone hanged themselves, it is not acceptable to detail what type of ligature they used. It is acceptable to say someone cut themselves and where on their body, but not what instrument they used or how they avoided or increased levels of injury. Similarly, when reporting eating disorder stories it is actively unhelpful to list the weight, detailed exercise regime or calorie intake of the case study. As a general rule, stories should focus on ‘whys’ not ‘hows’.
Avoid using generic terms like ‘mental health issues’ when describing terrorists and other violent criminals
99% of people with mental illnesses are more likely to harm themselves than others. In establishing a link between generic poor mental health and terrorism, stigma and fear is increased. Instead be specific – what mental health ‘issue’ did the perpetrator they have? Was it in fact a personality disorder (being a psychopath or a sociopath is not technically a ‘mental illness’)? You might also add a disclaimer along the lines of ‘note most people with mental health ‘issues’ would not commit a crime of this nature, which occur as a result of a rare combination of circumstances’.
Understand the difference between mental health and mental ill health.
Everyone with a brain has a mental health, just as everyone with a body has a physical health. By using the term ‘mental health’ to describe mental illness, an important discussion which impacts 100% of the population is effectively confined to one quarter of it. Instead of ‘battles with mental health’ it is therefore much more helpful to say ‘issues with mental ill health’ so that the public can understand the distinction.
Include links to good quality sources of support if content might trigger need for help in a reader.
The best charities and support organisations ensure their web forums are monitored for triggering content (ie users sharing self-harm or suicide techniques). They do not promote one form of therapy for financial gain but instead describe various treatment methods. They base their content on reliable evidence and have good links with research institutions. Charities who have this ethos and you may wish to signpost to include: Young Minds (www.youngminds.org.uk), The Samaritans (www.samaritans.org), CALM (www.thecalmzone.net), The Mix (www.themix.org.uk), The Self-Harm Network (www.nshn.co.uk), B-eat (www.beateatingdisorders.org.uk), Mind (www.mind.org.uk)