Mental Health Reporting

Promoting accurate and appropriate portrayals of mental illness: A collection of resources


By: Veerpal Bambrah, Allyssa Fernandez, and Jessica Dere

Journalists recognize the power of the words and images that they use in describing their subjects. Moreover, the public’s worldview is informed by a lifetime of media exposure. Unfortunately, a universal theme from meetings held and analyses of media coverage is that media coverage around mental health is often negative in tone, and that individuals with mental illness are portrayed as fundamentally different from non-mentally ill individuals (Stuber & Achterman, 2009). More specifically, key analyses of media content find that:

  • News stories about a person with mental illness being violent and harming others are, by far, the most common topic of news stories in which mental illness is a factor. This creates the false perception that there is a strong link between mental illness and violence where none exists.
  • The language used to describe people experiencing mental illness is predominantly negative, reinforcing negative stereotypes that are harmful to people experiencing mental illness and to their families.
  • There are typically multiple causes of mental illness, but this is rarely reported.
  • When symptoms of specific diagnoses are described they are often inaccurate.
  • There are fewer news stories with any mention of recovery or prevention.
  • Audiences tend to take messages about mental illness from favoured media sources more orless at face value (Stuber & Achterman, 2009).

In contrast, accurate reporting about mental health issues should reflect current knowledge about the complexity of recovery and prevention, and about the causes and symptoms of mental illness. New scientific advances in how to treat and prevent mental illness come every year. Today, we know that for most individuals with serious mental illness, substantial improvements including the ability to live a meaningful and productive life–without major symptoms of illness–are likely (Harding, Brooks, Ashikaga, Strauss, & Breier, 1987). However, little is known about how these facts about mental illness are portrayed by the media. In fact, one content analysis showed that only 4% of news stories mention positive treatment outcomes (Corrigan et al., 2005).

As previously mentioned, inaccurate reporting of mental health in the media has serious consequences. More specifically, the language commonly used in news stories (and other mass media), as well as a persistent negative focus on violence, contributes to prejudice and discrimination for people with mental illness. This in turn can lead to social isolation, as well as difficulties finding and retaining employment and housing. Furthermore, negative portrayals of people with mental illness and of the treatment systems that serve them lead to structural discrimination in terms of policy and financing for mental health (Corrigan et al., 2005). News media coverage also informs the decisions of policy-makers in such important areas as involuntary commitment and gun control. The negative attitudes that exist about mental illness in society contribute to low level of treatment-seeking and the exacerbation of the symptoms of illness (Corrigan, 2004). Finally, people with mental illness sometimes internalize the negative stereotypes that are represented by the media, which contributes to negative outcomes such as lowered self-esteem and impaired social interactions (Link, Cullen, Struening, Shrout, & Dohrenwend, 1989; Rosenfield, 1997).

In light of these consequences, accurate reporting of mental health in the media is crucial. This guiding document was created to support students who engage with material about media and mental health from various perspectives. Broadly, this document is for anyone who consumes media about mental illness. However, we hope that this document will also serve as a resource for students who write about mental health topics from a journalistic perspective–in line with the mission of Minds Matter Magazine. Minds Matter Magazine (MMM) is a student-led initiative based out of the University of Toronto Scarborough, providing stories about all aspects of mental health, written by students for students, their friends, and family. MMM’s mandate is to humanize the perception of mental health in a way the engages individuals to think both mindfully and critically. This guiding document serves to gather, summarize, and review a number of resources relevant to mental health and the media. The document contains references to existing guidelines and best practices for the reporting of mental health topics. It is our intention that this document offers students the opportunity to critically reflect upon representations of mental health information in the media; examine ways in which topics they have learned from an academic perspective are translated for a general audience; and become familiar with existing guidelines and best practices relevant to the reporting of mental health topics.

At the start of this project, we used the search terms “mental illness”, “mental health”, “journalism”, “reporting”, and “stigma” to search a number of online databases (e.g., Google Scholar, Ovid, and ProQuest). Concentrating on media guidelines, we focused on English language documents only from the following types of sources: media organizations, mental health organizations and charities, and academic institutions. Hence, each guide was sorted based on its target audience (public or journalists/media professionals), type of author/source, and the primary focus/foci of the document:

  • Understanding Mental Health as it relates to basic facts, statistics, definitions, and research on mental health topics.
  • Reporting and Language in Mental Health as it relates to how to accurately and appropriately write about mental health in the news or media.

After an iterative search process, we gathered 24 unique guides. The guides are each listed with a summarizing description, to give the user context as to what the guide includes. As well, we have provided keywords for each guide, as some guides include specific topics within the general area of mental health. Some guides are listed more than once, as they cater to more than one audience, are written by more than one type of source, and/or have more than one focus.

This guide is a resource with multiple and diverse documents that is useful for both producers and consumers of media content about mental health issues–with the goal of promoting critical analysis of such content. The purpose of this guide is to raise awareness among all interested writers–students, journalists, and others –on how to improve reporting on mental health issues.

Corrigan, P. W. (2004). How stigma interferes with mental health care. American Psychologist, 59(7), 614-625.
Corrigan, P. W., Watson, A. C., Gracia, G., Slopen, N., Rasinski, K., & Hall, L. L. (2005). Newspaper stories as measures of structural stigma. Psychiatric Services, 56(5), 551-556.
Corrigan, P. W., Watson, A. C., Heyrman, W. A., Gracia, G., Slopen, N., & Hall, L. (2005). Structural stigma in state legislation. Psychiatric Services, 56(5), 557-563
Harding, C. M., Brooks, G. W., Ashikaga, T., Strauss, J. S., & Breier, A. (1987). The Vermont longitudinal study of persons with severe mental illness, I: Methodology, study sample, and overall status 32 years later. American Journal of Psychiatry, 144, 718-26.
Link, B. G., Cullen, F. T., Struening, P. E., Shrout, P. E., & Dohrenwend, B. P. (1989). A modified labeling theory approach to mental disorders: An empirical assessment. American Sociological Review, 54, 400-423.
Rosenfield, S. (1997). Labeling mental illness: The effects of received services and perceived stigma on life satisfaction. American Sociological Review, 62(4), 660-672.
Stuber, J., & Achterman, P. (2009). Washington State newspaper coverage of mental health issues. School of Social Work at the University of Washington. Retrieved from: