How the Media Should Be Reporting on Mental Health

Words matter. This means the way in which the media report on issues such as suicide or mental disorders can improve awareness or, conversely, increase stigma. Good practice in this regard is key.
How the Media Should Be Reporting on Mental Health
Valeria Sabater

Written and verified by the psychologist Valeria Sabater.

Last update: 31 March, 2023

Today, there’s much more information in the public arena on factors related to mental health. For instance, many celebrities are speaking, in an open and normalized way, about the psychological disorders they might be suffering or have suffered from. Likewise, the media is also seeking to make visible certain realities that, until now, have remained locked away in silence and stigma.

However, although this movement is essential and provides hope, one nuance remains. This is the fact that the way the media presents news is important. Indeed, words can either help or harm. In fact, in recent times, we’ve witnessed how some media are guilty —intentionally or unintentionally— of the process of sensationalism. This is a serious mistake.

One common tendency is to associate tragic or violent events with mental disorders. For example, they might report, “The attacker was schizophrenic” or “The young woman who took her own life was depressed”. Many of these expressions and phrases are often not only based on unverified information but are also harmful to those suffering from mental health problems.

Some media, in their way of presenting information, reinforce stigma and trivialization.

Woman looking at the mobile how the media should report on mental health
The population reads news on a daily basis and how it represents mental health factors can create awareness or biases.

How the media should be reporting on mental health

Information and communication media have great power. With this, comes great responsibility. Therefore, the headlines they produce and the way they present information suggest certain social clues about how we come to conceive of specific groups of people. The most common occurrence is linking criminality with mental disorders.

In addition, one sector of our population particularly vulnerable to the information it receives on a daily basis are our young. For instance, no one can deny that the number of children and adolescents who’ve committed suicide has increased in recent years. Obviously, the media must report this fact. That said, they must choose their words carefully to avoid sensationalism. In fact, they should employ the much-needed Papageno effect, which promotes suicide prevention.

It can’t be denied that the media often reports events concerning mental health as exceptional realities. But, in reality, as the World Health Organization (WHO) points out, one in four people currently have or will develop a mental health problem at some point in their lives. For this reason, it’s imperative that we know how to report and present the news about these situations.

We’re going to examine the guidelines that regulate the ethical codes of the journalistic profession, the ministries of social affairs of governments, and the WHO.

People with schizophrenia are the most stigmatized in society. Over time, an extremely negative, threatening, and even violent image of them has been created. This is a clearly skewed portrait.

1. To avoid the perpetuation of prejudices

Terms like mentally ill, mentally disordered, crazy, schizophrenic, or psychotic are stigmatizing concepts that disqualify people. Indeed, the image that’s given of mental health conditions is usually disturbing. Consequently, society is presented with a totally distorted idea of these conditions.

As a matter of fact, it’s advisable that the media use the term mental health problems as opposed to mental illness or psychiatric illness. They should use this terminology to avoid giving hasty diagnoses. Moreover, they should avoid substantiating any mental condition. For example, reporting an individual as depressive, anorexic, schizophrenic, bipolar, psychotic, etc.

2. To say no to alarmist headlines

In the clickbait era, it’s all too easy for the media to resort to alarmist headlines to gain readers. However, this should never be done at the cost of mental health. As far as possible, it’s more appropriate to refer to the topics and news related to this area in a contextualized way. In effect, the condition shouldn’t constitute the headline itself.

3. To normalize and avoid images that stigmatize

Frequently, news about certain groups suffering from mental disorders is accompanied by sad, dark, and miserable images. We see people looking lost, passive, or on their own in desolate settings.

Obviously, we wouldn’t expect images in which sufferers appear to be overflowing with joy and happiness. That said, the images should be more normalizing. After all, a person with depression still goes to work and patients with schizophrenia receiving treatment can lead full lives. These are the kinds of images that the media must convey.

4. To be wary of linking violence with mental health

The media should be reporting on mental health in a manner that complies with medical regulations and journalistic ethical protocols. However, there’s a tendency for them to link violent acts with various psychological disorders. Scientific research offers important nuances in this regard.

In fact, research conducted by Queen’s University (Canada) claims that mental health problems are neither necessary nor sufficient causes for violent behavior. This latter reality is a complex combination of social, demographic, and economic factors. The media mustn’t fall into the trap of reductionism.

When it comes to covering news, media professionals must address the following issues:

  • Is there a clear diagnosis? Are the sources reliable?
  • Is it significant to highlight that an individual is suffering from a mental problem?
  • Are they respecting the privacy of an individual suffering from a mental problem?

The media are the most relevant channel for offering an accurate, real, and scientific view of mental health problems. Moreover, they can offer hope and means to those who are going through these difficult situations.

5. To increase social knowledge and a positive vision of mental health

The way in which the media reports on mental health must always start from reliable, scientific, and specialized sources. They must give a voice to professionals in the field, in order to educate society. Contrasted information unrelated to sensationalism makes consciences flourish.

Additionally, the media must offer a positive, normalizing, and resilient vision of mental problems. For example, by pointing out that rates of self-harm and eating disorders (EDs) have increased. Moreover, they must emphasize that mechanisms exist to deal with them.

It’s also advisable that the media report depression in another way. They should insist that it’s not synonymous with weakness, that it’s not isolated, and that there are science-based tools to deal with it.

Senior man in therapy with psychologist informing him about how the media should report on mental health
Normalizing going to the psychologist and asking for help is a way of deactivating the stigma.

How the media should be reporting on suicide

The suicide rate has been increasing worldwide. What’s more, we know that for every individual who successfully takes their own life, 20 more have tried. Studies such as those published in The Lancet highlight how this is particularly serious among the youngest population. In fact, due to the pandemic, it’s become an urgent fact that must be addressed.

For this reason, the way in which the media reports on mental health is key. They can be both helpful and act as agents of change. They must take the utmost care in the way in which they expose these facts. After all, as we mentioned earlier, words matter. Here are the ways in which the media should be reporting on mental health.

Media treatment of mental health

When reporting specific news, the media must have the support and advice of psychologists and psychiatrists.

  • They shouldn’t mention suicide ‘epidemics’.
  • They should give information about support services. Also, they should provide relevant telephone numbers.
  • They shouldn’t provide detailed descriptions of the mechanisms of specific individuals’ actions. Nor should they present images.
  • They should avoid spontaneous comments or contributions from non-specialists. That’s because it’s all too easy to exhibit prejudice unconsciously.
  • They should really only report suicides when they involve well-known people. Or, when the facts have some general and justified interest.
  • They should avoid explanatory reductionism regarding why the individual took the action they did. For instance, they should avoid reporting that they were bankrupt, suffering from depression, or had been bullied. When an individual chooses to take their own life, there’s no single cause. It’s a complex, multifactorial reality.
  • They must promote the Papageno effect. This means they must focus the news in a way that contributes to the idea that there are coping mechanisms to prevent these situations. They must articulate the information they give in a protective and preventive way, and never sensationalize it.


Finally, the answer to how the media should be reporting on mental health is a simple one. They should be reporting ethically and in an educational manner. Moreover, they must take advice from professionals in the field. Indeed, we can’t emphasize enough the great relevance that journalists have in the exercise of positive awareness on these issues.

The media and social networks have to be allies so they can offer helpful news and data on this matter. This means they must avoid trivializing, overgeneralizing, or falling prey to unhelpful paternalism. By being sensitive to dealing with these circumstances, they’ll help promote a society that’s both educated and sensitive to these realities. This will be of benefit to us all.

All cited sources were thoroughly reviewed by our team to ensure their quality, reliability, currency, and validity. The bibliography of this article was considered reliable and of academic or scientific accuracy.

This text is provided for informational purposes only and does not replace consultation with a professional. If in doubt, consult your specialist.