The dignity of people living with mental illness is more sensitive and vulnerable than others’ —moreover, some of them are unable to defend their rights. In such instances, assuming this protective function are to some extent also journalists.
But any media reference to mental health needs to be based on overly thorough fact-based research. Journalists must at least have a general knowledge and seek the advice of experts and authorized persons, if necessary. Most importantly, journalists must be very careful in their wording, so as not to degrade a person, and present the incident accurately.
Here are some benchmark tips, which can more or less help journalists when reporting on a person with mental health issues.
Should it be published?
- If the purpose of publishing the story is simply for the sake of watching a “show” and the journalist came across such a person by chance, audio-recording, taking photos or video is the worst thing the journalist can do. More precisely, in that case they are not a journalist.
- If such a scene occurred while covering an event, and if the scene falls outside the domain of that event or hasn’t radically altered the course of the event, the scene shouldn’t be included in the piece to be published.
- In any case, if publishing the scene is necessary from a professional point of view, it’s preferable that the person’s name is not mentioned and their face isn’t recognizable in the published piece (for example, it is blocked, unrecognizably out of focus, or shot from a distance).
- If there are suspicions that the person has legal, health, public importance, and other issues, the matter should be studied very deeply, comprehensively, and the piece produced with extreme care, so that neither the truth nor anyone’s dignity suffers.
- If the journalist has even a small doubt or even an as-yet unverified fact that the person has a mental illness, they shouldn’t succumb to the frenzy of a fabricated sensation, shouldn’t invite said person to a conversation to discuss their problems. In such cases, it is the person’s dignity that suffers first of all, no matter how much the journalist pretends that they’re actually trying to protect that person’s rights.
- A journalist shouldn’t make use of the opportunity that the psychiatrist, motivated by their duty to confidentiality, might not even respond to the worst charges against them.
Refraining from labels
- Permanently renounce negative labels (prevalent especially in our society), which don’t need to be listed here once again — everyone knows them very well.
- There are notions of psychiatric care in Armenian law that even if they don’t change, the journalist in their article has the right to replace them with definitions that don’t belittle a person’s dignity.
- Terms in Armenian legislation that are at least debatable are a “person suffering from mental disorder” and “mentally ill.” In any situation, “with mental health issues” is more or less preferable in a news story.
To publish medically confidential information or not?
- Information about a person’s mental health are confidential and a special class of personal information that is more protected.
- Such information is provided to the client and their legal representative (RA Law on Psychiatric Care [AM]).
- The source-of-information doctor or another person authorized to possess that information may be held liable for publishing confidential information if the grounds for which publicizing such information is not prohibited are absent.
- Journalists may publish this information if they have the consent of the client or their representative , or if publishing the information is in the public interest, in the need to prevent a threat tied to another person’s or the public’s health and safety.
- If forced hospitalization is necessary, the psychiatric institution can provide this information to the court, in order to obtain the relevant permission. If the decision is affirmative, the court sends it to the police, to enforce the forced hospitalization.
- A mental health commission makes the decision for forced hospitalization, if the person in question presents a threat to themselves or other people, or if their health may deteriorate if they don’t undergo treatment.
- The director of the psychiatric institution 72 hours after the commission adopts the decision applies to the courts, to get permission for forced hospitalization.
- The court may also make a judgment on the insanity of a suspect, based on the conclusion of experts. In the case of some serious mental health issues, the suspect is deemed “insane” and is released from the punishment corresponding to the act, but they are hospitalized for treatment. Such court rulings may also be public.
A journalist has no right to assume the role of a psychiatrist
- If the journalist is not a psychiatrist, under no circumstances do they have the right in their article or on another public platform to “make a diagnosis” that such and such a person, in their opinion, has mental health issues or the opposite. (Along with such media reports in Armenia, an author posted the following status on social media years ago: “See how logical this girl’s words are — how can she have a mental health problem?”). Such questions must be ruled out in any public platform because no matter the direction of the conclusions, all the same, you first of all belittle a person’s dignity.
- Experts say that a person’s mental state cannot be decided on an amateur level— neither from their appearance nor clothing nor the logic of their words.
- So, it’s not possible to decide a mental state from media interviews if an expert is not conducting the interview. And, it’s understandable, that an expert, in turn, doesn’t have the right to conduct these conversations publicly.
From old stereotypes to new way of thinking
- Fiction literature and folklore can be free in the vocabulary of figurative thinking, but in journalism, it wouldn’t hurt to get rid of stereotypes and motivate the public to do so as well.
- There are oft-occuring minor mental health issues that are easily reparable, and a person’s well-being is vastly better after they’re resolved, improving as well the feelings of those around them. This is no less an important step for improving the quality of life of that person and the people around them.
- The old stereotypes, that a mental health institution is supposedly a madhouse, a prison, and so on, shouldn’t be expressed in published news stories. If there’s a doubt that someone is being unfairly and for other reasons subject to a psychiatric examination or treatment, then of course, a journalism investigation must be conducted, all the facts checked, and a comprehensive, sound report produced.
- The person with the issue and the public should know that there’s no shame in improving one’s mental health — it’s not overcoming the problem that’s undesirable. This is the case in more progressive societies.
The journalist’s profession and mental health
- Journalism is considered one of the most stressful professions (that’s why in Armenia, for example, it’s included among certain grave professions, and an additional four days are added to annual vacation time).
- Some post-stress problems sometimes arise from prolonged tension and exhaustion, which an expert might quickly help to address, often just with advice.
- Journalists sometimes cover such serious stories that might later cause post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and the symptoms of PTSD might appear years later. Our colleagues in the West suggest that in all cases, journalists who have covered war, terrorism, catastrophe, and other members of the team who worked in such environments should seek mental rehabilitation services as soon as possible.
P.S. This list of tips is open for expert observations and suggestions. I await your comments.
The views expressed in the column are those of the author's and do not necessarily reflect the views of Media.am.