A panel discussion was held in Bengaluru to discuss media coverage of mental health issues with journalists sharing their thoughts.

How media covers mental health NIMHANS conference seeks to break societal stigma
news Mental health Sunday, February 24, 2019 - 07:51

The second edition of the National Conference on Mental Health Education, organised by the Department of Mental Health Education of the National Institute of Mental Health and Neuro Sciences, Bengaluru saw many professionals from mental health and journalism discuss the relationship between the media and mental health.

The conference, which was held on Saturday at the NIMHANS Convention Centre, was on the topic, ‘Reporting mental health on media: Words Matter’, and consisted of a list of short presentations and panel discussions. One of the panel discussions discussed in detail the way mental health disorders are portrayed in the mainstream media and the importance given to mental well being by the media.

The panel consisted of TR Gopalakrishnan, the former editor of The Week, Surekha, principal correspondent in SmartLife of The Week, Afshan Yasmeen, a senior assistant editor with The Hindu and Sunita Rao, an assistant editor with the Times of India. The discussion was moderated by Dr Poornima Bhola, associate professor at NIMHANS.

Changing times and evolution of perception on mental health in newsrooms

Starting the discussion tracing the way mental illnesses have been portrayed by news publications, TR Gopalakrishnan said that over the years, mental health issues have been understood more, which is now getting reflected in the mainstream media.

“I think we have understood the issue (surrounding mental health). But as a news publication, back then it was more of reporting an event and not much of creating awareness about it. We had assumed that it wasn't our (journalists’) job to campaign about the issues,” he said.

He added how reporting about mental illness has been brought to the forefront now as compared to the 1980s or 1990s.

“15 years ago, we wouldn't have considered depression as newsworthy. But now we do. Hence mental health issues are gaining importance and editors have also understood its importance,” he said.

Afshan Yasmeen agreed with the shift in the level of understanding of mental illnesses and acknowledged that times have indeed changed when it comes to reporting on such sensitive topics.

“Earlier mental health issues were tucked into the pages inside. Now we have managed to bring it to front pages, sometimes even as anchor stories with great graphics and pictures,” she pointed out.

Giving an example of how there is a loyal readership for articles and stories related to wellness among the people, Surekha said that stories about how people have chosen to take care of themselves and their mental health have attracted attention.

Reporters and their coverage of issues involving mental health issues

Delving into how newspapers and media cover suicide or accident stories, Sunita Rao said that the reportage has evolved from analysing the reason behind the crime rather than just reporting that an incident has taken place.

Adding that it is a layered problem since the police, who are one of the primary sources for reporters, themselves loosely use terms like depression and suicide, Sunita Rao said that there is a pressing need to sensitise every stakeholder.

“There are suicide helplines mentioned in copies which deal with such topics. Newsrooms must train their reporters on how to be sensitive,” she added.

Pointing out how a reporter might deal with a situation that involves interacting with the family that has lost a loved one, Sunita Rao described the recent incident where a child fell from the stairs of a metro station and died.

“Reporting on suicide has guidelines on what to speak about and what not to mention. For example, suicide helplines must be mentioned in each story involving suicide or suicidal tendencies. Similarly, in stories that deal with death by suicide, reporters are not supposed to go into details on how it happened. It might act as a trigger or a guide for those readers who are suicidal. Hence, utmost care must be taken while writing such stories,” Afshan Yasmeen explained.

Need for a common knowledge exchange platform

Emphasising on the need for a common space where mental health experts and journalists can get together, share inputs and clarify doubts, Gopalakrishnan said, “Reputed organisations can conduct workshops once a year to sensitise reporting methods while dealing with mental health issues.” As an editor, I would definitely want my health reporter to attend such a session, he quipped.

Surekha, meanwhile, stressed on the need to have separate guidelines for other mental health issues just like how we have one for reporting on suicides. She also said that responsible use of social media becomes imperative at this juncture. “Social media can be an encouragement to share one’s problems but it can also act like a bully,” she added, giving the example of how miscreants managed to twist the ‘Me Too’ movement to suit their narrative.  

Gopalakrishnan also pointed out that the definition of mental illness is slowly narrowing down to indicate just depression. “There are many other things which are also mental disorders – Anxiety, bipolar disorder, etc. People must start recognising behavioural changes in their loved ones,” he added.