When Mental Illness Makes News, Facts Often Missing in Action Aaron Levin
Almost 40 percent of articles in U.S. daily newspapers associate mental illness with dangerousness and crime. There are ways that psychiatrists can work with reporters, however, to help ensure that the public gets correct information.
Newspaper stories about mental illness still focus most commonly on danger and crime, according to a study of 3,353 articles in 70 major U.S. dailies.
Thirty-nine percent, or 1,291, of the stories fell under the danger heading, most of them in the front section of the papers surveyed, said researchers led by Patrick W. Corrigan, Psy.D., of Evanston Northwestern Healthcare, in the May Psychiatric Services. At the same time, 26 percent of the stories dealt with treatment and recovery, and 20 percent covered advocacy actions and concerns.
The 39 percent of the stories related to dangerousness was smaller than the 50 percent to 75 percent reported in earlier research, wrote Corrigan and colleagues.
"From this survey, we discovered that stories about danger and crime are waning, although they are still the largest single focus among stories about mental illness," they stated.
Nevertheless, Corrigan sees the glass of stigma as half full, if 3 out of 5 stories do not use disrespectful language about mentally ill individuals.
"This is an improvement over the status quo," he said in an interview. "It's good to hear that coverage of stigma is moving in the right direction, although the public is still being influenced with messages about mental illness and dangerousness."
The researchers selected all daily newspapers in the U.S. with a circulation greater than 250,000, plus the largest newspaper in any state where no paper's circulation reached that figure. The average daily circulation of the 70 papers was about 451,000, ranging from 16,755 to 2,195,805. They searched online databases for the 70 papers using the terms "mental," "psych," and "schizo." Articles dealing only with drug or alcohol abuse were not included.
The stories were identified and coded during six weeklong periods in 2002. The coding system was based on the authors' previous research and had four main categories: dangerousness, blame, recovery, and advocacy action. Some stories could fall into more than one category.
Within the danger category, the most common references were to violent crime, suicidal or self-injurious behavior, or mental illness as a legal defense. In contrast, only 56 of the 1,291 articles under the danger heading focused on mental illness as a danger to others, and 132 connected mental illness with being victimized by crime.
Of the 3,353 articles that mention mental illness, 13 percent referred to biological treatments and 14 percent to psychosocial treatments, but only 4 percent considered recovery as an outcome.
"The news media may not be adequately informing the public about the role of recovery in treatment," wrote Corrigan and colleagues.
Only 15 percent of the stories (501) addressed blame or causation. Almost none blamed the mentally ill individuals or their parents for their condition. Mental illness was most often ascribed to environment, genetics, or biology.
This article was printed in Psychiatry Today a few years ago. When I see news stories in the paper about a random shooting, or of a mother in Texas who cut off the arms of her baby because God told her to do it, or a single mother in Ft. Worth who hung her children from the clothes rack in the closet; I have to read almost through the whole article and find a single line of text that mentions, like a footnote, that the person had a known history of mental illness. These people can be wonderful contributing members of society when taking the proper medicines. These children do not have to die at the hands of their loved ones who are delusional and sick.