This is an archived article.

May 7, 2009

UW, state launch project to improve understanding, coverage of mental illness

A new program designed to improve public understanding and news reporting of mental health and mental illness is being launched by the UW’s School of Social Work and the Washington State Mental Health Transformation Project.

“There is a widely held misperception by the general public that there is a strong link between mental illness and violence,” said Jennifer Stuber, a UW assistant professor of social work and lead author of a new report on how mental health is covered in the state’s newspapers.

“There is no such link. Study after study has shown that mental illness is not a defining characteristic of violence. There are other factors that are a more direct link to violence — such as the use of alcohol, being a male and being a teenager or young adult,” she said.

The report, authored by Stuber and Peg Achterman, a UW communications doctoral student, includes a content analysis of 856 stories published in the state during three time periods over 10 years that mentioned mental health or mental illness. The stories ran from January to April in 1995, May to August in 2000 and September to December in 2005 in four of the state’s major media markets — Spokane, Vancouver, Seattle and Tacoma.

Nearly one-third of the stories, 31 percent, used negative or derogatory language about people who had mental health issues, the study found. Looney, psycho, scumbag, whacked out, ticking time bomb, mentally defective and bonkers were among the terms used to describe these individuals. These negative references most commonly appeared in front-page stories or in reviews of movies, plays and TV programs.

By contrast, only about 6 percent of news stories used positive language to describe someone with a mental illness. Stuber said even fewer stories covered prevention programs or reported on significant improvements in quality of life or a reduction of symptoms in people with mental illness.

She added that language around mental illness is very important, and if people and the news media only do one thing it should be to avoid using words such as “schizoid” or “the schizophrenic” to describe a person living with schizophrenia.

“Using such labels is insulting to people with mental illness. It is equating people with their illness and making their illness their predominant characteristic. So is the false link between violence and mental illness. It stigmatizes people. Those with mental illness talk about it as something that is lifelong. It affects their well being, their day-to-day living and their ability to find employment and housing.”

The project’s Web site, mentalhealthreporting.org, contains more information and a link where individuals can post mental health events and story ideas for members of the Washington State Coalition for Mental Health Reporters. It also will help people contact journalists who might be interested in writing about them.

The project and the research were funded through a federal grant from Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration to the governor’s office.