I sent a note to Globe staff Friday morning about the use of language and mental illness from our senior style editor Martina Blaskovic and me.
Last week, the discussion started with how journalists cover suicides after the Vancouver School Board voted to prescribe guidelines for the media. Then on Friday, the news broke that the nurse at the hospital where Kate Middleton was being treated who accepted a prank call from Australian DJs apparently took her own life.
It is important given these two events to stop and consider what language is used to describe mental illness and suicides. The Globe and Mail does a pretty good job of being sensitive and respectful. There is no evidence that terms related to mental illness have been used as insults or slang (as in calling someone “psycho”.) Still, this newspaper and others could do a better job by thinking about what words are chosen and avoiding some bad habits. Here are a few practices that should stop:
1. Linking mental illness with violence. People suffering from mental illness are about 10 times more likely to be victims of violence than perpetrators of violence. However, some violent acts are committed by people with untreated mental illness. Research in the U.K. published by the National Union of Journalists found that 63 per cent of people believed mental illness was associated with violence. Clearly there is much misunderstanding and journalists can do a better job in countering that. If there is an act of violence, reporters should determine whether the person was being treated at the time and say so in the story. If you know such details, you can write, for example, “Mr. X, who had stopped treatment for his psychosis, was charged with doing Y.”
Mental illness is a vast, ambiguous term. There is a range of conditions and severity. The vast majority of people suffering from mental illness work, have families and are active members of their community. People with severe untreated (or untreatable) mental illness are a tiny minority, but they are the ones most likely to be featured in the media.
2. “The mentally ill”. This is a phrase used dozens of times over the past year. Preferable to say “people with mental illness.”
3. “Committed suicide”. This is a throwback to when suicide was considered a crime. Instead say “died by suicide” or “attempted suicide”.
4. Never call a suicide successful or unsuccessful. Avoid a description of the method unless it is very public or relevant.
5. Remember that behind every person with severe mental illness, there is a family that has suffered a lot too. Show sensitivity.
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