The media often reports on individuals with mental illness. However, little is known about how accurately the media portrays these individuals. Are journalists getting mental illness “right?” It seems the answer is no. I analyzed news reports about individuals with mental illness who were killed by police during 2015 and 2016 and found that these individuals were often stigmatized because of their mental illness. In 301 online news reports, I found 231 examples of stigmatizing language.
This stigmatization took a variety of forms. At times, journalists used the stigmatizing language. Other times, stigmatizing language was present in quotes from family members, community members or police. Here are some examples:
- Using mental illness as the defining characteristic of an individual: “paranoid schizophrenic,” “alcoholic” or “drug addict.”
- Describing people with mental illness as helpless with little chance of recovery.
- Using derogatory language: “crazy,” “insane,” “mental,” “crazed,” “deranged,” “nut.”
- Implying that suicide is caused by a single event—such as having a relationship problem or losing a job—not by mental illness.
- Portraying violence as the norm for people with mental illness. (However, research has indicated that on average individuals with mental illness are not violent and that individuals with mental illness are more likely be victims of violence.)
- Describing individuals with mental illness as “not normal” and “not mentally there.” This implies that there is a fundamental difference between individuals without mental illness (“normal”) and individuals with mental illness (“not normal”).
What Can We Do?
How journalists report on mental illness is crucial, because incorrect reporting can easily reinforce stereotypes and stigma in society. Research has indicated that people who are exposed to stigmatizing language are less accepting and supportive of people with mental illness. Research has also showed that stigmatizing mental illness can increase the likelihood that individuals experiencing symptoms will delay or avoid treatment.
If you notice derogatory and stigmatizing language in the media, contact the news station or journalist to let them know. Highlight the language you felt was stigmatizing and explain why it’s important they not use this type of language. Then suggest other language they can use instead. In doing this, you are helping to stop the spread of stigma on a large stage.
You can also help on a smaller stage, in your daily life, by becoming more aware of how you speak about mental illness and encouraging others to do the same. For example, if a person uses the phrase “a mentally ill person” you could instead use the phrase “a person with mental illness” to reflect that mental illness is not the defining characteristic of that person.
You could also pose questions to encourage anyone who uses stigmatizing language to reflect on the language that they use. For example, “What did you mean when you said ‘psychotic’?” or “Can you explain what you meant by saying ‘She’s so bipolar’?”
If you feel comfortable being more direct, you could suggest more appropriate ways of talking about mental illness. For example, if someone uses the term “nuts” to describe a person with mental illness, you could explain why that word is derogatory and instead suggest they say, “a person with mental illness.”
Stigmatizing language takes a variety of forms in our lives. Unfortunately, journalists often don’t get it right when they need to the most. Whether it’s describing a person with mental illness as “crazy” or portraying violence as the norm for people with mental illness, this is not the message that should be sent to the public. These individuals deserve better.
Emma Frankham is a PhD student at the University of Wisconsin–Madison. She researches incarceration, policing, and mental illness. The research discussed in this blog post is forthcoming in the journal Stigma and Health. You can read more about her research here: [email protected].