News Analysis: Mental health NGOs seek sympathy

With high-profile figures such as Alastair Campbell and David Blunkett admitting to battles with depression, mental health is high on the media agenda. But NGOs claim coverage is insensitive, finds Sarah Robertson.

It is three years since The Sun ran its infamous ‘Bonkers Bruno' front-page headline following revelations of ex-Boxer Frank Bruno's mental health problems. Last week, the same paper's splash on a certain supermodel was accompanied with ‘Nutter Naomi'. Just two examples of how the reporting of mental health has brutalised a
sensitive and complex issue.

According to government figures, one in four people will suffer from mental illness - ranging from depression to schizophrenia - during their lifetime. But a significant movement is under way to highlight how media are reinforcing the stereotypes of mental health, in a bid to provide better understanding among journalists and less sensationalist coverage.

Alastair Campbell last month added his voice to criticism of media coverage when presenting the Mental Health Media Awards. He spoke of his battles with depression while at Number 10 and - rather ironically - during his time as a journalist.

Link with violence
Last Sunday, ITV aired Mysterious Creatures, the true story of a couple's suicide pact as they struggled to cope with their grown-up daughter's unclassified mental illness. The daughter, Lisa Ainscow - whose mother survived the pact - expressed her alarm prior to broadcast that the show would portray her inaccurately as violent, and could worsen her condition.

Her fears were recognised by many involved in mental health care: one of the most serious misconceptions around mental illness is that it always leads to violence - and is more a problem for society than the individual. ‘If you look at what is more exciting for the media it will not be someone who had a psychotic experience and recovered, but someone who has been ill and been violent in some shape or form,' says Paul Corry, director of public affairs at charity Rethink.

He adds that criminal cases involving violent mentally ill people have a disproportionately high profile. In reality, people experiencing mental health problems are more likely to be attacked than they are to attack others because of their vulnerability. In Naomi Campbell's case, The Sun alleged that she had attacked her PA. The paper connected this in its headline with a mental health issue. At last month's award ceremony, Alastair Campbell said: ‘One in eight stories on mental health has an angle related to violence, which is not representative.'

However, most of those concerned with the issue say coverage is becoming more balanced. ‘There are areas of reporting, particularly on less serious conditions, which are improving in tone,' notes Press Complaints Commission external affairs manager Sue Roberts. But how much of this shift is down to the endeavours of charities? ‘Mental health is not breast cancer or disabled children - it is a much tougher sell in terms of communications,' says the eponymous founder of Ben Furner Communications, which promotes the Mental Health Media Awards. He is quick to stress though that charities with scant resources are doing a ‘great' job in engaging media.

Daily Express health editor Victoria Fletcher agrees: ‘If there is a mental health story on the horizon, the NGOs are straight on the phone, reacting quickly and being proactive. As recently as two years ago this was not the case.' She claims that in their features pages at least, the tabloids have become less sensationalist on the topic. 

However, Disability Rights Commission head of media Patrick Edwards says a priority should be to change the PCC's code so it can uphold complaints about coverage of groups of people, rather than just individuals: ‘Without doing this to address prejudice, there is little that NGOs can do.'

While much NGO work in this area is ad hoc, there are a number of campaigns and projects either ongoing or in the pipeline. For instance, The Samaritans is advising Camden Council's comms team on how to brief reporters covering suicide stories - the borough has one of the highest suicide rates in the capital.

Public engagement
Meanwhile, Rethink has teamed up with Mind and Mental Health Media to operate a ‘speakers' bureau' for the Government's Shift programme - a five-year drive to tackle stigma and discrimination surrounding mental health. The bureau is a bold initiative, involving a pool of people with severe mental illnesses trained to speak to media and appear at events.

The trio are also planning their first national PR and advertising campaign next summer. It will be based on previous campaigns in New Zealand, Scotland and Norwich - said to be the UK city with the highest proportion of anti-depressant users.

Observer health editor Jo Revill suggests that physiatrists and psychiatric nurses need to more effectively
engage media. ‘It is difficult because there is a history of these carers being under the cosh - they tend to get the blame for homicides and they perceive the media as hostile.'

Sane's director of strategy Margaret Edwards - who oversees campaigns to improve the state of psychiatric wards - says: ‘We are campaigning to improve the provision of care, to raise awareness of self-harm. We are carrying out research on pro-anorexia websites.'

Meanwhile, the media team at Rethink has gone from one to three people in as many years - growth that is reflected across NGOs as they bid to ensure coverage of mental health is more sensitive to those affected.

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