Celebrity mental ill-health is not entertainment for the masses

Celebrities often generate significant public interest and news headlines, however when these same individuals experience mental ill-health issues or problems it is important to consider how coverage can avoid causing harm.

Treating suspected or confirmed instances of mental ill-health or severe mental illness in well-known individuals as entertainment, or for the purpose of clicks, can be harmful not only to the individual but to the broader community, resulting in stigma.

While it is widely known that talking safely and responsibly about mental ill-health is one of the best ways to break down stigma, stereotypes and myths associated with mental ill-health, it must be handled sensitively and respectfully.

There are various ways this challenging topic can be covered with nuance and without trivialising the individual’s experience or reducing the individual to an unofficial diagnosis via media. There is a significant risk of ridicule for the sake of entertainment.

According to Everymind Acting Program Manager Sara Bartlett, media professionals have an important role to play in balancing the narrative when it comes to covering celebrities and instances of mental ill-health.

“Treat stories about mental ill-health and celebrity the same way you would cover a story on a local community member’s experience,” Ms Bartlett said.

“They are human and they are experiencing a challenging period in their life, and it is important to consider that this experience isn’t entertainment for the masses.

“It is also crucial to consider that there may be many individuals who identify and relate to a celebrity’s specific experience, so if coverage is stigmatising, this can generate further self-stigma and impact on these vulnerable individuals.”

Recommendations for reporting about a person with mental ill-health:

Consider relevance: For many within the broader community, media is their primary source of information about mental health and illness.

For this reason, media need to consider the way in which they present information about mental health and illness and how they report on individual’s experiences of mental ill-health, especially celebrities.

It is important for media to first consider whether mental ill-health is relevant to the story.
Speculation about the state of an individual’s mental health can contribute to stigma, discrimination and unhelpful myths or misinformation.

While an individual’s behaviour may appear erratic and unusual, it is important not to link this directly towards a mental illness unless confirmed by the individual or other reliable sources.

SANE Australia’s Dr Michelle Blanchard said the media have an important role to play in reducing stigma towards those experiencing mental ill-health.

“The way that the media covers stories relating to mental ill-health can either help or hinder recovery. It’s important that the media share stories in a way that reflects people’s lived experience while also providing a sense of hope that recovery is possible and that help and support is available.”

Minimise sensationalistic details: Check the representation of mental illness is fair and balanced.

It is important to ensure the story does not exaggerate a person’s illness or the effect this has on their behaviour or life.

Seek expert advice about the specific illness being discussed, and ensure there is discussion of how individuals can live productive and meaningful lives despite their experience of mental ill-health.

“Everyone’s experience of mental ill-health is different. Stereotypes can lead to people making false or negative assumptions about a person and their experience, which can add to the barriers they may face, ” Dr Blanchard, Deputy CEO, SANE Australia, said.

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For example, the media should avoid describing a person as ‘crazed’ or ‘psycho’. These stereotypes are often inaccurate, and are stigmatising to those living with a diagnosis.

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Dr Michelle Blanchard, SANE Australia

SANE Australia Peer Ambassador Sandy Jeffs OAM feels frustrated at the media portrayal of those living with mental health issues: “If we keep seeing stories in the media that only portray us, the mentally ill, in the worst possible way, what hope do we have of breaking down barriers and feeling good about who we are?”

Consider language and context: When reporting on celebrities it is especially important to consider how it is framed. Before reporting, consider the reliability of your source, the language and images you use. Presenting a story as entertainment or gossip trivialises mental ill-health, but respectful coverage can break down stigma and encourage others to seek help.

Be sensitive to impact on individuals and yourself: Media are encouraged to take care interviewing a person with mental ill-health or a lived experience of caring for someone with mental ill-health. Individuals may be happy to speak to the media, but it can be difficult to talk publicly about deeply personal issues.

Where possible, ensure participants are supported to speak to the media and there are no legal considerations.For more information on how to report safely on mental illness please visit www.mindframe.org.au.

To report stigmatising content in the media visit www.sane.org/stigmawatch

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