WASHINGTON — At a time when growing numbers of young Americans are diagnosed with mental health conditions, media are looking at ways to cover the issue more responsibly.
Data shows a rise in young adults being diagnosed with conditions such as depression or anxiety. But media reports of public incidents involving mental health sometimes use damaging language, experts say.
Terms such as “unhinged” or “erratic” — language used to describe a homeless man killed on the New York subway last year — are held up as poor examples of coverage.
Reporters on the health beat and experts who specialize in mental health say that such terms are damaging for those who have a medical condition and that they can be misleading.
“Media plays an important role in shaping public perception of many things, including mental illness,” said Christine Herman, a freelancer journalist.
Coverage can make it appear as if the illness is a moral failing or lack of character, Herman told VOA.
“Sometimes mental health issues are criminalized in our society,” she said, citing how some news outlets still use terms such as “commit suicide” when reporting on someone who has taken their own life.
The term dates to when suicide was still criminalized in the United States.
“The language we use and the way we describe and talk about mental health conditions can really contribute and shape perception,” Herman said.
Rebecca Brendel, a medical doctor and former president of the American Psychiatric Association, said she believes media plays an important role in explaining health conditions.
“We know that to get treatment and to be healthy, we need to have health literacy,” she told VOA. “We need to have an awareness. We need to have reliable information as consumers of health care and mental health care.”
The late first lady Rosalynn Carter was an early advocate for responsible reporting on mental health. Through the Carter Center, she created a fellowship that offers training to journalists on how to better cover the issue.
“Informed journalists can have a significant impact on public understanding of mental health issues as they shape debate and trends with the words and pictures they convey,” Carter said, as cited by the Center.
When Carter died in November, staff at the Center paid tribute to her legacy.
“She taught generations of journalists how to report about behavioral health in a way that reduces stigma and stimulates understanding and equitable treatment,” a statement read.
Since the fellowship started in 1996, more than 250 journalists have benefited from the program — including Herman.
“It’s important because the type of coverage we do … people in our communities read it, or people across the country read this coverage,” said Herman, who started her career in public radio.
Based in Champaign, Illinois, Herman said that as she started to cover health issues more regularly, her interest in mental health grew.
Her reporting on the obstacles for families trying to access mental health care was recognized with an award last year.
Herman, who serves on the board of the Association of Health Care Journalists, said the most effective reporting is accurate, based on science and puts a focus on the person not the condition.
She advocates for compassionate coverage that includes the voices and perspectives of the people affected.
“These are all things that can help contribute to dismantling stigma and ending discrimination toward people who have mental health conditions in our society,” she said.
Data from the American Psychiatric Association shows 1 in 5 Americans experiences a mental health disorder.
“We know that Americans are struggling with their mental health now more than ever before, following the COVID-19 pandemic,” said Brendel of the American Psychiatric Association. “In fact, in mental health circles, we’ve even called it a twin pandemic, a pandemic of mental health.”
She and Herman say they have seen an improvement in how media reports on mental illness, due in part to the Carter fellowship program.
Having the skills to report in a way “that is both accurate and actionable,” Herman said, ensures coverage that contributes to “better public understanding of these issues and ideally to dismantling stigma.”