Monday, February 18, 2008

The Guardian: Mind how you report mental health

Journalists are being urged to show more sensitivity when handling stories that feature people in distress

David Batty
Monday February 18 2008

Headlines labelling offenders "psychos" or "schizos" have long been a staple of the British press. But in recent years, coverage of crimes committed by people with mental health problems has faced increasing criticism - much of it for distorting public perceptions about the risks posed by those in mental distress.

When the Sun splashed on Frank Bruno's admission to a psychiatric hospital in 2003 with the headline Bonkers Bruno Locked Up, it misjudged the public's mood - later editions of the paper changed the story to Sad Bruno in Mental Health Home. But despite assurances of adopting more measured coverage, papers, particularly the tabloids, can nevertheless still revert to sensationalist language.

Striking the right balance in cases of violent crime can be difficult. Jon Clements, crime correspondent for the Mirror, has won praise for his coverage of a case involving a man with schizophrenia who attacked a church congregation with a samurai sword. While his paper had branded the perpetrator, Eden Strang, a "nut" at the time of the attack in 1999, Clements set the case in context in an interview following Strang's discharge from a psychiatric hospital in 2002.

"I was a bit nervous going into his house on my own but he was obviously a bright guy on the road to recovery and full of remorse," says Clements. His piece made clear the severity of Strang's mental ill health at the time of the attack, which led to him being cleared of attempted murder and assault due to diminished responsibility. "The psychiatrist said he was as mad as you can get at the time," says the reporter.

Clements admits it is often tough to balance the sensational nature of crime reporting with the concerns of mental health campaigners: it is unrealistic to expect the media to censor or ignore crimes because they are committed by people with mental health problems.

"If someone goes 'mad' with an axe on Brixton High Street it's not going to make a lot of difference if they're mentally ill, drunk, high on drugs or just a vicious bastard, the story will be written," he says. "But you can include context. Part of a crime reporter's job is to explore the background and motive of a crime. So, for example, it makes sense to explain what paranoid schizophrenia really is and the risks people with it really pose."

The BBC's home editor Mark Easton says many journalists do not feel comfortable about the complexities of mental health, or about the language they should use to try to describe it.

"Journalists do like to deal in issues of black and white, and sane and insane," he says. "There's a tendency to want to see whether an offender is mad or bad as if you can draw a distinct line between the two. We should have an awareness that things are not as simple as the courts would like you to say [they are]. There's an enormous number of people locked up who are subsequently found to have mental health problems."

He believes journalists and mental health campaigners need to find better terminology to describe mental disorders. For example, mental health charities have promoted the term "service user" as an inoffensive description of people with mental health problems. However, many journalists complain the term is meaningless and confusing for their readers - and editors.

"I would urge campaigners to think of terminology that better addresses the issues involved," says Easton. "Even the phrase mental health is a switch-off - people immediately think of people in asylums."

Easton is optimistic that coverage of mental health issues will not be so skewed towards rare cases of violent crime in the future. He lays the blame for the lurid headlines about mad axmen over the past decade with the government's attempts to drive through controversial new mental health laws in the wake of the murders of Lin and Megan Russell.

The killing by Michael Stone, who had a history of untreatable personality disorder, led ministers to propose legislation to preventatively detain people with severe mental health disorders even if they had committed no crime. Campaigners complained the bill reinforced the idea that everyone with a mental illness was a danger to the public. The legislation, first proposed in 1998, did not receive royal assent until last year.

"It has completely warped coverage of mental health issues to focus on a tiny minority of psychopaths who are a significant risk to others," says Easton.

· What's the Story?, a handbook on reporting mental illness, is published by Shift

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