Three questions every reporter should ask when covering mental health

“The stigma is strong, it affects all of us, and people who are impacted by mental health issues are really sensitive to that.”

May 24, 2019

Deborah Wang didn’t know what to expect when she sat down with a Seattle teenager and his mother to talk about his depression.

She wasn’t sure how open the 16-year-old would be about his anxiety, eating disorder or self-harm, or if he understood yet what talking publicly about his experience would mean.

But what Wang, a contributing reporter for KUOW Public Radio, did know was that a minor’s mental health challenges can be a sensitive topic with high stakes.

“The stigma is strong, it affects all of us, and people who are impacted by mental health issues are really sensitive to that,” Wang said.

Mental health is baked into the stories newsrooms cover, from mass shootings, drug epidemics and trauma spurred by terrorism or climates, natural and political.

One in five adults in America experience a mental illness and half of all lifetime cases start by 14 years old, according to the National Alliance for Mental Illness.

That means it’s very likely that journalists will interview sources with a mental health disorder or cover a story that involves mental health.

And getting it right means a more informed public that understands mental health and encourages treatment. The alternative is perpetuating stereotypes and stigma.

The following questions that reporters should consider include suggestions from The Carter Center’s resource guide for journalists covering behavioral health:

Is mental health or substance use even relevant to the story? Does it need to be included if there’s no meaningful link? What details add value and how do they provide context to the overall story?

Stories that shine a light on addiction crises or deaths at psychiatric institutions are important, but look beyond the problem to solutions that can help your audience. Is there a positive angle that isn’t all “doom and gloom”? Are you relying on tropes to drive clicks?

If someone is living with a condition, describe signs and symptoms to raise awareness and include how they sought or others can seek help.

If it works for quick-turn stories, you could also add an example of someone who overcame the issue and how. Prevention, early diagnosis and intervention matter.

Above all, avoid speculating on or connecting someone’s condition to unusual actions or behavior.

“Be mindful of any judgments you make, and try to set those judgments aside and listen,” said KUOW’s Wang.

PRO TIP: Behavioral health captures mental health and substance use disorders. The latter are diseases of the brain that drive use despite consequences. Use “substance use,” not “substance abuse” or “substance misuse.”

Am I talking to the right source? If someone’s mental or substance use disorder is relevant, make sure your source has the credentials, experience and authorization to share information about the person’s experience or condition — and that the information is accurate. Hearsay or a relative’s opinion is not a diagnosis.

Professional or state associations and academic institutions are a good place to start if you’re looking for a specific expert.

Remember that someone’s circumstances may have more impact on the news event, like the violence or homicide that led to breaking news, than their behavioral health condition.

PRO TIP: Mental health is a public health issue. Let that inform your approach. And if a source offers a medical diagnosis, ask them how they know. That will help you understand if it’s accurate, a formal diagnosis or just an assumption.

What’s the best language to use? It goes without saying that as journalists, our words on any platform matter.

By describing someone as having or living with a condition and not as the condition itself or “suffering from” it, you shift viewers’ or readers’ perceptions about your subject’s experience or actions. Behavioral health experts call it “person first” language.

It helps humanize your subject and doesn’t perpetuate stereotypes or discrimination of others with behavioral health conditions. For example, you might say “Jo Smith, who lives with bipolar disorder” rather than “Jo Smith, who is bipolar.”

You might even suggest an appropriate headline or think about working with the copy editor, digital producer or associated team member on one.

“Reporters need to be open to hearing complicated and painful stories,” said Wang, a current Rosalynn Carter Fellow for Mental Health Journalism. “They are usually not straightforward.”

PRO TIP: Consider consulting experts and developing or adopting and distributing a newsroom policy for covering topics like suicide, mental or behavioral health, addiction and others.

Kari Cobham is the senior associate director for The Rosalynn Carter Fellowships for Mental Health Journalism at The Carter Center. She’s an award-winning former journalist who has spent the past several years at the intersection of product and content for Cox Media Group newsrooms. You can follow her @KariWrites and fellows’ mental health reporting @CarterFellows.