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Media Tips

Please share these tips regarding tragic events that involve someone with a mental illness within your organization to help reduce stigma:

Consider these three basic scenarios:

  • An act of violence by a person living with mental illness or who has speculation around his/her mental health.
  • Police actions while responding to a person in psychiatric crisis.
  • Suicide.

What should—and should not—be said?

  • Don’t speculate about a person’s diagnosis.
  • Speak only in general terms about mental illness or a specific disorder that already has been reported based on a credible source.
  • Don’t try to analyze specific facts to offer an opinion.
  • Deliver a consistent message.
  • Pose key questions that need to be pursued.
  • Offer relevant fact sheets. Links to NAMI fact sheets on websites or cut and pasted sections of text from them can be sent by email. Encourage reporters to include sidebars or links in online stories with facts about mental illness in the interest of public education.

Mental Illness and violence

When violent tragedies occur and an individual living with a mental illness has been arrested and charged, NAMI seeks to provide balanced perspective and better public education about the nature of mental illness and mental health care. Statements also seek to offset stigma.

Headlines shape public perceptions. Much of what the news media reports involves conflict, controversies, accidents and deaths. Inevitably, perceptions become distorted: events that represent small percentages or remote risks loom large in the public mind. It is important to cite the U.S. Surgeon General in order to provide a strong, authoritative, official source about risks of violence. For a sample statement, read “Arizona Tragedy and Mental Health Care.”

Police actions

When police actions cause or contribute to a tragedy, talk about Crisis Intervention Team (CIT) training and whether or not it has been implemented in the community. Recognize that law enforcement often are burdened with being first responders. For more information about CIT, see www.nami.org/cit. For a sample statement, read “Fullerton Tragedy: Police Beat Man to Death” or “Miami Tragedy: Shooting of Airline Passenger.”

Suicides

Studies worldwide have found that certain types of news coverage can increase the likelihood of suicide in vulnerable individuals. The magnitude of the increase is related to the amount and duration coverage.

  • Don’t speculate about a person’s diagnosis.
  • Speak only in general terms about mental illness or a specific disorder that already has been reported based on a credible source.
  • Don’t try to analyze specific facts to offer an opinion.
  • Deliver a consistent message.
  • Pose key questions that need to be pursued.
  • Offer relevant fact sheets. Links to NAMI fact sheets on websites or cut and pasted sections of text from them can be sent by email. Encourage reporters to include sidebars or links in online stories with facts about mental illness in the interest of public education.

Please note:

  • NAMI is an organization of individuals and families who themselves have had their lives affected deeply by mental illness.
  • When tragedies occur, it is essential to understand the nature of mental illness.
  • The likelihood of violence by people with mental illness is low. In fact, the U.S. Surgeon General has reported that “The overall contribution of mental disorders to the total level of violence in society is exceptionally small.”

Acts of violence are exceptional. They are a sign that something has gone terribly wrong. Here are questions that public authorities and the news media need to pursue:

  • Was there an actual diagnosis?
  • What is the full medical history?
  • Did the person or family seek treatment, but have it delayed or denied?
  • Where was the person treated? By whom? How often?
  • Was treatment coordinated among different professionals or programs?
  • Was medication prescribed? Was it being taken? If not, why not?
  • Was substance abuse present?
  • What events or actions may have triggered the psychiatric crisis?
  • Did family members ever receive education and support?

Risk of “copycat” suicides increases when the story explicitly describes the suicide method, uses dramatic or graphic headlines or images, provides repeated or extensive coverage or sensationalizes or glamorizes the person’s death.

  • Remind reporters that the U.S. Surgeon General and Centers for Disease Control (CDC) have helped developed reporting guidelines for the news media to minimize risks. Send them this link: www.reportingonsuicide.org.
  • Apply the same standards to NAMI publications.
  • Don’t speculate on factors that may have led to a person taking their own life. Don’t describe methods at least not in detail.
  • Encourage reporters to use the story as an opportunity for public education about suicide prevention and warning signs and to publicize the National Suicide Prevention Hotline: 1-800-273-TALK (8255).

In the state of Mississippi, the Mississippi Department of Mental Health has published the Mental Health Media Guidebook for Mississippi Journalists. Please click on the button below to access the PDF for future reference.

 

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