Communicating about a person with mental ill-health

Communicating about an individual experiencing mental ill-health sensitively and accurately can change public misconceptions, challenge myths and encourage community discussion about the issue.

Safe and accurate discussion about a person with mental ill-health plays a huge role in demystifying negative stereotypes while alleviating harm for those vulnerable.

Consider whether referencing mental ill-health is relevant

  • has it been confirmed by official sources that the person has been diagnosed with a mental illness? Are your sources reliable? Information you have received from a witness, neighbour or first responder to an incident may be inaccurate. Speculation about someone's mental health status contributes to stigma and discrimination.
  • media guidelines and codes of ethics emphasise the right to privacy. Consider whether there may be consequences for the person's health and wellbeing if you disclose their mental illness.

Check that the representation of mental illness is fair and balanced

  • ensure that your story does not exaggerate a person's illness or the effect mental ill-health has on their behaviour or life
  • mentioning the person's mental illness in the headline or lead can sensationalise the illness and reinforce stigma
  • using photos or images that unnecessarily show people with mental ill-health looking dishevelled or otherwise 'different' can perpetuate stereotypes
  • seek expert comment or advice about the specific illness being represented

Consider how to present information from police and courts

Australian research has shown that the most problematic type of news coverage about mental ill-health results from information collected at court or from a police incident.

  • many stories focus on violence and relate to specific and relatively rare circumstances. However, audiences are likely to make generalisations about people with mental ill-health as a result of the coverage
  • check the relevance of mental ill-health to the story. Report only where an illness has been confirmed by official sources.
  • take care not to imply that a specific mental illness was a factor in a story unless confirmed. Assuming that certain behaviours are associated with mental ill-health is often inaccurate and can perpetuate stigma
  • the way a police or court incident is reported may contribute to the perceived link between mental ill-health and violence. Research indicates that most people with a diagnosed mental illness have no history of violent behaviour and are more likely to be victims of violence
  • media can help community understand by providing context surrounding an incident involving a person with mental ill-health. For example, where violence occurs it is often in the context of drug use, distressing hallucinations, a lack of treatment, or treatment that may not have been effective.

Interviewing people living with mental ill-health

Sharing stories of people that have experienced mental illness can increase awareness, reduce stigma and promote hope. When interviewing a person with lived experience of mental ill-health, do so sensitivity and with discretion. While many people are happy to speak to the media, it can be difficult to talk publicly about a deeply personal issue.

Where possible, source someone who is supported to speak to the media. Many mental health organisations can now facilitate access to people living with mental ill-health, or their carers.

Be cautious about engaging with potential sources through social media as it can be difficult to tell someone's age or whether they are able to provide informed consent to participate in an interview.

Ensure there are no legal restrictions on interviewing or reporting about someone living with mental ill-health

Reporting on a celebrity's mental illness

If positively framed, stories about celebrities or public figures living with mental ill-health can be a powerful tool in breaking down stigma associated with particular illnesses and can encourage others to seek help.

Celebrity stories can also trivialise the seriousness of mental ill-health by presenting it as entertainment or gossip.

Before reporting, consider the reliability of your source and the language and images you use.