Term paper: Media coverage of mental illness

For your next term paper, consider writing about the often harmful way the media cover mental illness. The media are often too quick to make broad generalizations, stigmatize mentally ill people and link violence with depression. Mental illnesses are complex and affect people in various ways, and the media should reflect this when reporting.

Discuss how mental illness is seen through media coverage. (Credit: dilw.ie)

Discuss how mental illness is seen through media coverage. (Credit: dilw.ie)

For good research paper topics for your classes on psychology, mental illness or print or broadcast journalism, you can write about the ways the media covers mental illness.

Media coverage of Germanwings pilot

For your research paper, consider writing about the way the media erroneously links mental illness and violence or tragedy. With headlines like “Madman in Cockpit” and “Unfit to Work,” the media was quick to blame co-pilot Andreas Lubitz’s depression for the recent crash of the Germanwings plane.

Mental health groups are advocating that the media not stigmatize people with depression, not make assumptions about risk from a person dealing with mental illness, not make generalizations, and report mental illness with clarity and certainty about each specific case. As to the media often linking violence with mental illness, “only 3-5 percent of violent acts in the United States are committed by an individual with serious mental illness—a tiny fraction of the country’s violent crimes,” reported in “The Way We Talk About Mental Illness After Tragedies Like Germanwings Needs To Change,” by Healthy Living Staff posted in The Huffington Post March 27, 2015.

Reporters gloss over veteran suicide

Another topic for your term paper is to write about how the media treats veterans with PTSD and other mental illness. In the article “At Home, Our Soldiers Continue to Die,” posted in The Charleston (WV) Gazette, April 12, 2014, opinion columnist Mary Sanchez noted that for March 2014, journalists reported that for the first time in seven years, no U.S. soldiers died in combat. Never mind that the Department of Veterans Affairs estimates that 22 former members of the military commit suicide every day. That means that 1,900 veterans killed themselves in the first three months of 2014. The media doesn’t cover these deaths. “Many struggle with the so-called ‘invisible wounds of mental health.’ And it is for them that we must do more,” said Sanchez.

Change the image of mental illness

A good research paper topic on mental health is to write about ways the media can change its coverage of mental illness. British actor and comedian Stephen Fry is backing a campaign to eliminate the often used photo of a sad or depressed person clutching her head that accompanies news articles about mental health issues. Time to Change, an anti-stigma campaign run by mental health charities Mind and Rethink Mental Illness, has started the Get the Picture initiative that wants to change the way mental health stories are illustrated in the media. They say stock photos of people clutching their head wrongly conveys the message that all people with mental illness are depressed, in distress, or are harmful to others. In addition, headclutcher photos often obscure the person’s face, further distancing that person or treating him or her as a nobody.

“One in four of us will have a mental health problem in any year—and our responses are very, very varied—we don’t all spend our time slumped in a corner with our heads in our hands,” says Sue Baker, director of Time to Change, reported in “Mental health and the death of the ‘headclutcher’ picture,” by Kathleen Hawkins posted April 13, 2015, on BBC.com. While journalists make quick decisions to use stock headclutcher photos to easily convey mental distress, Time to Change has released appropriate photos of people doing everyday activities, talking, and showing more of the face than usual.

Check out Questia’s Mental Health library for more resources. 

What are some better ways for journalists to cover mental illness?

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