Mindset is an important new guide to improving reporting and writing about mental health. It should be within easy reach in all newsrooms, writes Toronto Star public editor Kathy English. 

By Kathy English, public editor for the Toronto Star

In writing the haunting story of a young man who killed his mother in the middle of a psychotic episode, Star reporter Amy Dempsey was well aware of the challenges for journalists in writing about mental illness.

Before attending journalism school, Dempsey had worked briefly for the Canadian Mental Health Association. As well, her mother works in the mental health field.

Dempsey knows that people immersed in the field have considerable concerns about how journalists report on mental illness. She understood that much sensitivity was called for in telling the difficult story of Michael Stewart and his family. She took steps in her reporting and writing to ensure she neither reinforced stereotypes about mental illness and violence nor used simplistic labels in referring to Michael and his illness.

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“I made sure that Michael was never described as a ‘schizophrenic man,’ but always as a man who has schizophrenia,” Dempsey told me. “We wouldn’t describe someone as a cancerous man or liver-diseased woman.

“I made sure readers knew the context applicable to the story — that most people with schizophrenia are not violent, that erratic behaviour occurs when a person is not receiving medication or treatment, that societal stigma and the symptoms of schizophrenia often prevent people with the disease from seeking help and understanding they need it.

“I also asked the family directly: what are your concerns about how schizophrenia is portrayed in the media?”

Dempsey’s sensitivity to mental health issues resulted in a powerful story of redemption and forgiveness in the face of an unimaginable tragedy. Response from readers to her excellent work has been overwhelming, with many thanking the Star for its nuanced portrayal of mental illness.

In an ideal world all journalists would bring this same mindset and depth of understanding to reporting on issues of mental health. In reality, reporting and writing about mental illness can be a challenge for the most sensitive of journalists.

But help is at hand. A new guide for journalists aimed at improving reporting on mental health, aptly titled Mindset, is now available.

Mindset matters in mental health and this guide makes clear that the mindset journalists bring to stories that both focus on and touch on mental illness matters greatly in shaping public perceptions.

At any time, one in five Canadians is affected by a mental health disorder. Many suffer in silence because stigma about mental illness still exists, in part because of media portrayal and misinformation.

“Mindset is all about doing better journalism,” the project’s website states. “Stories that are more factual, more complete and don’t contribute to stigma.

“We celebrate journalism that challenges wrong and outdated assumptions about mental illness, provides factual information and encourages reporting that probes unfairness and systemic flaws.”

Written by journalists for journalists, the concise booklet — packed with smart, simple and solid advice — was published by the Canadian Journalism Forum on Violence and Trauma, in association with CBC News, with partial funding from the Mental Health Commission of Canada.

This guide should be required reading for all journalists and within easy reach in newsrooms.

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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.