The U.S. Surgeon General has reported that the likelihood of violence from people with mental illness is low. In fact, “the overall contribution of mental disorders to the total level of violence in society is exceptionally small.” The vast majority of people with mental illness are not violent. Actually, they are 2.5 times more likely to be victims of violence than members of the general population, according to a study published in the International Journal of Law and Psychiatry.
It doesn’t get much more clear cut than that. To put it simply, acts of violence committed by people who have a mental illness are exceptions; they are not the norm. The common perception that a mental illness equates to violence.
Yet, it is not uncommon for mental illness to get the blame when a mass killing occurs. That was certainly the case after the Parkland school shooting.
So, how do journalists report accurately about mental health and violence? Most important is to consider the source of your information. Even if a family member, acquaintance or a first responder makes a statement such as “he seemed on edge lately,” or “I thought she was acting bipolar,” ask yourself these questions:
- Is the individual qualified to make judgments about a person’s mental health?
- Do court records indicate the individual you’re writing about ever, in fact, received treatment related to mental health issues in the past?
- Even with a history of treatment, is this relevant to the present story?
The “Elvis Ricin Case” gives us an excellent example of the harm done by including unfounded statements about a mental illness diagnosis in a story. In 2013, a person in Northeast Mississippi was accused and arrested for sending ricin to the President of the United States as well as a Mississippi representative to Congress and a local judge. Immediately reports circulated and were reported that this Elvis tribute artist lived with a mental illness. Area family members were devastated by this information being made so public.
As it turned out, the suspect had been framed by the actual guilty party and he was eventually released from jail. In addition, though many thought he acted strange, a diagnosis of a mental illness was never confirmed. The damage had been done, however, to both him and his family.
The stigma that surrounds mental illness and causes people to be afraid to get treatment has proven real enough for the Associated Press to call on journalists to be more sensitive in their reporting surrounding mental illness.
Here are a few suggestions for reporting a story that includes a diagnosis from mental illness.
- First of all, refer to the AP Stylebook for guidelines. Another excellent resource is the Mental Health Media Guidebook for Mississippi Journalists.
- Remember that reporting can have a significant impact on the way people perceive those with a diagnosis of mental illness and the things they believe about mental illness.
- Having a diagnosis of mental illness does not define someone. Use “people-first” language. Do not reduce them to a “walking diagnosis.”
- Understand that recovery from mental illness happens and treatment is effective.
- Write with these facts in mind:
- One in four people will experience a mental illness in their lifetime.
- In all likelihood, you will be affected by a mental illness…or someone in your family, your circle of friends, or your church family will.
- Everyone is just one major crisis away from the possibility of post-traumatic stress syndrome or major depression.
- Given the facts as you know them, consider how would you want to be described?
For those who want to practice accurate and ethical journalism, this is an issue of critical and ongoing importance.
Debbie Woodrick Hall is an Instructional Assistant Professor of Integrated Marketing Communications at the University of Mississippi. Prior to joining the faculty at Ole Miss, she spent 35 years in non-profit and government public relations. Her most recent job was with a Mississippi Department of Mental Health facility; during her tenure she and other professionals wrote and edited the first state-wide mental health media guidebook. She shares some of the insights found in this guidebook here.