It was a busy morning as usual for Heather Stuart, as she drove through downtown Kingston, Ont. She was heading for a meeting but got stuck in traffic. The radio was playing in her car. It provided a musical treat Heather needed to cheer up what would be a busy day. Even in the traffic, it was fun. But not for long.

The radio announcer had just made a joke. It was about kids who have a kind of mental illness that affects their studies. Stuart didn’t find that funny.

Her anger at such a joke is no surprise to those who may know her. For the past decade, she’s been involved in health research and campaigns to reduce stigma against mental illness.

“You wouldn’t make fun of somebody with cancer,” says Stuart, a professor of community health and epidemiology at Queen’s University. “Why do you think it is fun to make fun of someone who has mental illness?”

Her frustration with the radio announcer follows severe criticism of Canada’s journalists for the way they handle mental illness in the news. Mental health researchers, like Stuart, say journalists falsely portray people who have mental illness as unpredictable, dangerous and violent.

Veteran health reporter André Picard believes journalists do not stigmatize mental illness. He says the frequency at which journalists link the sickness to violence has reduced, “and even when a link is made nowadays, there is more explanation.”

Picard knows about the trend of mental health coverage in Canada. He’s been working for more than two decades as a health reporter for the Globe and Mail.

“There is no question there is work to do, but it has improved dramatically,” says Picard, a past winner of the Michener Award for public service journalism.

Mental illness affects Canadians of all age groups, education and income classes. In 2013 alone, more than two million people experienced mood disorders, according to Statistics Canada. That was a significant increase from the 1.9 million reported in 2010.

Canadians with mood disorders, 2010 – 2013 | Create Infographics

The Mental Health Commission of Canada says 60 per cent of those affected will not seek help, for fear of being labelled.

caption Forty per cent of newspaper articles and stories mentioned mental illness in the context of crime, violence and danger.
Photo Ilustration Somed Shahadu

A report by the commission said mental health costs the Canadian economy an estimated $50 billion each year. The report, submitted to the House of Commons Committee on Finance on Aug. 6, 2014, said the annual cost of mental health problems will reach $307 billion each year by 2041. 

In 2009 the commission launched an anti-stigma campaign, Opening Minds. It aims to improve public knowledge of mental illness, and particularly targeted reporters and editors. Opening Minds is the largest effort to reduce mental health stigma in Canadian history.

Stuart and some other mental health researchers in the country say journalists’ negative depiction of mental illness hasn’t changed. They say it is still a big problem.

A February 2013 article of the Canadian Journal of Psychiatry reported that 40 per cent of newspaper articles and stories between 2005 and 2010 mentioned mental illness in the context of crime, violence and danger. The report was based on a survey by the Douglas Institute of Mental Health at McGill University.

Researchers collated news articles in which the terms “mental illness”, “mental health”, “schizophrenia”, and “schizophrenic” appeared. The articles were collected from best-selling English-language Canadian newspapers including the Globe and Mail, National Post, Ottawa Citizen, the Toronto Star, the Toronto Sun, and the Montreal Gazette.

Only 17 per cent of the articles included quotes or paraphrases of people with mental illness. Most of those quotes created negative depictions about the characters involved. 

How Canadian newspapers portrayed mental illness, 2005-2010 | Create Infographics

McGill University psychiatry professor Robert Whitley says these numbers indicate there is no positive change in the way journalists treat mental illness in the news. He is particularly disturbed by the lack of quotations from mental health experts and people who have mental illness.

“Unfortunately that just continues. A lot of marginalization, a lot of stigmatization in the media,” said Whitley, who led the survey. “People with mental illness have been denied the right to speak. They’ve been denied a voice throughout society for centuries.”

Whitley sounds angry when he talks about this. He said the percentage of articles that discussed treatment and recovery was too low and could reinforce the wrong impression that mental illness is not curable.

He said people who have mental illness and are undergoing treatment are calmer than the average person.

“They have less violence than the average person,” he said. “(The) most common mental illnesses are depression and anxiety. People with depression mostly stay in bed all day crying. They are not going out. They won’t attack somebody.

“It only changes slightly when someone with mental illness is also homeless and if they have substance abuse problems.”

Whitley said violent behaviour is rare among people living with mental illness. The media exaggerates the relationship between mental illness and violence, he said.

According to the American Psychiatric Association people with severe mental illnesses – schizophrenia, bipolar disorder or psychosis – are more likely to be attacked, raped or mugged than other people.

Significant improvement

Picard, in contrast, believes Canadian journalists have made significant improvement in the way they depict mental illness. He admits change is slow, but says surveys do not reflect the true image of the Canadian media.

The surveys, he says, reflect happenings in the past and, most importantly, “fail to capture the realities of journalism.”

The survey on which Stuart and Whitley base their verdict of Canadian journalists was done in 2012. Things could have changed since that time.

Still, previous studies in Australia and the U.K., which covered the same period as the Canadian study, showed news coverage of mental illness in those countries improved significantly.

Between 2008 and 2011, the U.K. media had a significant decline in the percentage of newspaper articles portraying people with mental illness as violent. Articles quoting experts and the perspectives of people who have mental illness increased simultaneously, according to a 2012 survey by the Health Service and Population Research Department of King’s College in London, U.K.

In Australia, it was even better. A 2008 media survey by Mind Frame, an anti-stigma advocacy project of the National Mental Health Commission, showed mental illness was portrayed in a far better context in 2010 than in 2000. Articles discussing treatment and recovery from mental illness increased from 75 per cent to 80 per cent.

caption The Mental Health Commission of Canada says 60 per cent of people living with mental illness will not seek help for the fear of being labelled.
Somed Shahadu

That is credited to Mind Frame, which has launched various media advocacy campaigns. The Mind Frame project launched a media guide on reporting suicide and mental health about three years ago.

The Canadian commission launched its own media guide in April, 2014. The document, Mindset, is available in English and French. It contains quick references on mental health and is distributed free of charge to journalists, news organizations and journalism schools across Canada.

Director of the commission’s Opening Minds project, Michael Pietrus, says the media guide has gained endorsement from major Canadian newsrooms.

“A number of media organizations – the CBC, CTV, the Globe and Mail, the Toronto Star – have endorsed the document. They use it as a guide for their reporters,” said Pietrus a former television producer and journalist with the CBC. “By getting these national media organizations on board, we should begin to hear more positive changes.”

But Stuart, the Queen’s professor who criticized the radio announcer, is not convinced. She said the commission’s efforts will make a difference only if journalists are ready to change.

“Reporters don’t like to be told how to report the news,” she said. “The only way to get reporters to change is to get them to change themselves. And that takes a lot of work.”

Picard agrees there is a  need for more work. He is a member of the commission team leading the Opening Minds anti-stigma campaign.

Picard said it will take time for the commission’s efforts to yield results. He warns coverage of violent incidents involving people with mental health will not disappear.

“The reality is that when we cover mental illness it’s going to be the extreme cases,” he said. “Providing the context in news is our job, but not to hide things and pretend they don’t exist.

“We report on things that are spectacular and different. When someone who has mental illness beheads another person in a bus, that story will get covered and it’s going to be gruesome. It will be awful. That doesn’t mean we don’t have sympathy for the other people who have mental illness and are doing fine. I don’t think you can make that leap in logic.”

Truth and compassion

Reporting mental illness in relation to violence is sometimes unavoidable for journalists. The job requires reporting dispassionately on happenings, and being factual, accurate and, most importantly, truthful. Ethical journalism also requires journalists to show compassion to people who are affected by the news.

Ryerson University Journalism professor Gavin Adamson says journalists should do fewer dramatic and sensational stories on mental health and more on the positives, such as successful treatments, recovery and rehabilitation.

Adamson was once a reporter himself. He is familiar with how a little more effort from journalists can create a change of attitude towards mental illness.

He recalled working at the Ottawa Citizen and being assigned to cover a violent crime involving a mental health patient. It was a cold morning in the winter of 1998 and his editor asked him to go down to Brockville.

Tragedy had just struck that community. A teenager had taken his own life. Seconds before that, he shot and killed a family member.

Adamson’s assignment was to write a story about that awful incident, but he would soon change the focus of his story. He heard from a neighbour that the teenager was undergoing treatment for schizophrenia at a mental health facility.

A doctor at the facility told Adamson the patient was discharged before the end of his treatment because there was no space to keep him. “I couldn’t believe it,” said Adamson. “The two victims would have lived on for some time if that failure at the recovery place didn’t happen.”

His report about the failure of the medical facility caused widespread condemnation, and eventually resulted in minor reforms in the mental health system in the province.

Adamson wants other reporters to report on how the medical system sometimes fails mental health patients.

“It is true that some people with mental illness sometimes find themselves in situations that put them in the news,” said Adamson, who is also part of the Opening Minds team. “But we have to remind people that these things are very rare.

“We also have to dig deeper to uncover the inadequacies of the mental health system that sometimes fail patients, and also dispel the myths which cause stigma.”

Dispelling the myths surrounding mental illness is critical to the lives of millions of Canadians. As Stuart said, “You stand as much chance of being hit by lightning than being assaulted by someone who has mental illness.”

Editor's Note

This story was reported and written by Oct. 17, 2014.

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