Though much of the stigma of mental health conditions has abated among the general public, coverage of depression, addiction, and other disorders is still often overshadowed by other health issues.
Therefore, there are few journalists covering mental health full time, says Steven Vetzner, senior media relations director at Mental Health America, a nonprofit group dedicated to improving mental health among members of the US public.
“There are a few full-time mental health reporters at publications like Mental Health Weekly,” he says. “But outside of that, you have to rely on general health reporters who happen to spend time on mental health issues.”
One reason that mental health stories are rare is that fewer people who have experienced mental health issues or addiction make themselves available to reporters, says Paul Maccabee, president of Maccabee Group PR, whose clients include Cigna Behavioral Health and Addiction Intervention Resources.
“It's a lot easier to get coverage for the latest treatment for heart disease than it is to get coverage on the latest new treatment for cocaine addiction,” he says. “Plenty of patients with kidney disease... will come forward to tell their story to reporters, but it's a far thornier problem getting folks who are cocaine or heroin addicts to go public.”
Mental health coverage also includes the debate over insurance, new treatments, and legislative issues, says Valerie Canady, managing editor of Mental Health Weekly.
“We do the occasional profile, but what we always look for are trend ideas, whether [they are] business related or deal with advocacy or innovative practices,” she says. “We also like to look at evidence-based techniques for treatment.?
Issues like mental health insurance parity, which requires insurers to offer the same deductibles or copayments for the treatment of mental health as they do for physical ailments, has dominated coverage in Mental Health Weekly, Canady adds.
Coverage of mental health issues increases following major media events, such as natural disasters or financial turmoil, says Rebecca Palpant, senior associate at the Carter Center Mental Health Program, who adds that the war in Iraq has also brought prominent coverage to issues.
“All these returning troops coming back from Iraq and Afghanistan have brought issues such as post-traumatic stress to the forefront,” she says. “And once a reporter begins to understand how prevalent mental health conditions are... they realize there are a lot more stories that should get out.”
David Ratner, president and COO of Newman Communications, says he's had a great deal of success pitching authors as mental health experts for breaking news stories.
“It may be college hazing, or violence on TV or in video games, but there are a number of ways to get at the mental health implications of these issues,” he says.
Leverage the human interest angle by offering an interview with someone suffering from or overcoming a mental health condition with your pitch
Stress the good news angle by noting that most mental health conditions are treatable illnesses
Mental health implications of natural disasters, or events like the current Wall Street crisis, will trigger interest from journalists looking for second- and third-day angles