The Canadian Journalism Forum on Violence and Trauma, in partnership with CBC News and the Mental Health Commission of Canada, has begun work on a comprehensive, Canadian guide to mental health reporting called Mindset – Reporting on Mental Health. J-Source interviewed Cliff Lonsdale, the president of the charitable organization behind this effort.

The Canadian Journalism Forum on Violence and Trauma, in partnership with CBC News, has begun work on a comprehensive, Canadian guide to mental health reporting called Mindset – Reporting on Mental Health.

The need for such a guide has never been greater, said Forum president Cliff Lonsdale. He is the former chief news editor of CBC Television and currently teaches journalism at Western University in London, Ont. "There's growing recognition that it's time to bring mental health issues out into the open and to examine how society and the media may be combining to reinforce the stigma that condemns hundreds of thousands of Canadians to suffer unnecessarily," he said.

The bilingual project, when completed in March 2014, will include a printed guide, a website and will be followed by a series of webinars.


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J-Source: Give us the elevator pitch for Mindset – Reporting on Mental Health. What’s it all about?

Cliff Lonsdale: It’s about better journalism. Not just avoiding attitudes and language that add to the burden of stigma on people who are ill, important as that is, but really it’s about tuning in to some underlying issues that make for better stories – stories that start talking about “why” as well as “what.” 

J-Source: Can you give some examples of stories that could have been better reported if journalists were better informed on mental health?

CL: Well, the obvious examples are the very dramatic, high-profile cases involving mental health and violence. Someone getting beheaded on a bus, a man running amok with a snow-plough or a respected member of the community suddenly killing his children – these things are always going to be news, and rightly so. Part of the problem is that the first reporters on the story are usually general-assignment ones, not specialists. And of course their priority is to find out and report what’s happened. But these things don’t just happen spontaneously. They happen because other things happened first – or failed to happen. Violent crime by people with mental issues is actually very rare, and very often it happens because someone with a very serious disorder went untreated. But people mostly fail to take that fully on board, and so the stigma washes over everyone with any form of mental illness, which is probably about 20 per cent of the Canadian population. The answer isn’t to censor. And I’m not even sure the answer is to try to increase the number of positive stories about mental health, good as that might be. I think the real answer is to help journalists do their job – which has to do with pointing out problems in the system, so that there’s more pressure to fix them. Because these violent stories scare people, they can colour everything. I’m all for journalists doing what they can to minimize the collateral damage done by their stories, but I think turning more journalistic firepower on the underlying issues is likely to be much more effective in reducing stigma in the long run.

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J-Source: What prompted the Canadian Journalism Forum on Violence and Trauma to start this project in collaboration with the Mental Health Commission of Canada and CBC News?

CL: The Forum has spent its first few years concentrating on the wellbeing of journalists themselves – physically and mentally. We always intended to extend that, when we could, to look at the impact stories about violence and trauma have on the public. Given the blend of senior journalists and mental health professionals among our membership, this seemed a great opportunity to start doing that. 

 J-Source: What type of resources will this project develop for journalists?

CL: In both official languages, we’re producing a concise, printed guide that will give reporters, editors and journalism students a sharp overview, an overall sense of where the pitfalls and possibilities lie. So, a journalist heading out on what might be a mental health assignment can do a fast refresher of the key points to bear in mind. We’re also producing a pair of websites – one in English, one in French – where there’ll be much greater depth on a lot of issues. There are conflicting views, there are issues that need discussion rather than a dogmatic approach, and there will be case studies that can be very useful, too. Whether we’re talking about treatment for people whose illness makes it impossible for them to recognize that they are sick, or the way the not-criminally-responsible defence is deployed, or whether funding for mental health treatment in the community has been properly directed, our job isn’t to pick a particular line. We want to help generate investigation and debate, and the websites will be the main tools for fostering that. Other tools we’ll use will include webinars, other events, as well as workshops, all of which may feed into the websites as well.

J-Source: When will this project be completed?

CL: It may not be for quite a long time. We’ll be launching the printed guides and the websites in the spring of 2014, and we’ve undertaken to keep growing the websites though 2017 at least. But I hope they will continue to develop after that, so that we can continue to reflect the latest developments, keep the discussions going, and so on. The printed guides will also be downloadable from the websites, and that means we can update them as well when it becomes necessary. I do think the kind of change of mindset we’re talking about will evolve gradually. But, on the positive side, I have to say that there’s been quite a lot of very good reporting on mental health issues in the Canadian media over the past few years. So we’re not starting from scratch, by any means. 

J-Source: Anything else that you would like to add about the project?

CL: Yes. As with anything progressive, it’s important to get the next generation of journalists involved, along with those already working their beats. We’ve invited journalism schools across the country to propose mental health reporting projects that could be given a home on the websites. We’ve deliberately not given them any examples – we want to see what the students themselves can bring to the table. When we named the Forum back in 2007, we chose that word because it implies different ideas and approaches coming together. What matters is the objective, not how we get there. And that’s as true of this project as it is of the work of the Forum as a whole.   

Tamara Baluja is an award-winning journalist with CBC Vancouver and the 2018 Michener-Deacon fellow for journalism education. She was the associate editor for J-Source from 2013-2014.