Telling our stories: the mental health media landscape

10 November 2016
By Martin Barrow, former journalist for The Times and media ambassador for the Centre for Mental Health

The Mind Media Awards are one of the highlights of the media calendar, by any measure. There are celebrity hosts, including Stephen Fry, Olivia Coleman and Jo Brand; a glitzy venue, previously at the BFI and more recently The Troxy; and a sprinkling of stars of TV and film keen to be present at an event that celebrates the best media representation of mental health. 

The awards matter to those who care about mental health, from service users and clinicians, to care workers and campaigners. And they certainly matter to the media. Yes, there are bigger awards in TV, radio and newspapers. But for journalists writing about mental health, or actors portraying people with mental illness, or bloggers writing about their own mental health, the Mind awards are a validation of their determination to pursue a story or a storyline, or to reveal deeply personal aspects of their lives, sometimes against the advice of their family and friends. 

So, what do this year’s awards, which take place on 14 November, tell us about the mental health media landscape? Nominations reflect a rich diversity of contributions from across TV, radio, newspapers and the blogosphere. They tell us that the media is more ambitious than ever about mental health, ready to take on ever more difficult subjects, and to challenge audiences.  From soap operas to comedy, through film and front page stories, these days mental health is more visible than ever before.  

Popular programmes like Loose Women and DIY SOS have no hesitation in discussing subjects like post-natal depression and PTSD while, for me, Professor Green’s BBC3 documentary on suicide was one of the memorable moments of British TV in the past year. By taking it into people’s living rooms and places of work, the media is helping to break down the stigma of mental illness. 

Writers and editors are more sensitive about the tone and content, too. That is not to say that they get it right every time. But the media has a deeper understanding than 10 years, or even five years, ago. In these days of social media, they are also far more aware of the pitfalls of getting wrong, and are more likely to seek the advice of organisations like Centre for Mental Health, Mind or the Samaritans, rather than make assumptions about mental health. 

As a former journalist, and a campaigner on mental health, I was struck by the absence of national newspapers from this year’s shortlist. I know that print journalists value the award, and that they continue to devote time and energy to reporting about mental health. A number of entries were submitted, but these failed to make the shortlist.  

Why is this? There does seem to be a paucity of original content around mental health in our national newspapers, and it is original, ground-breaking coverage that wins awards. My view is that newspapers are still mostly reporting about mental health as they did a decade ago, ignoring the fact that the argument has moved on significantly. They cannot match the reality of TV documentaries nor recreate the personal stories of the brilliant blogs that are so important to our understanding of mental health. And they lack the resources for the ground-breaking investigations that are a mainstay of TV and radio news and documentaries. 

Yet this is not the whole story, for local and regional newspapers continue to provide examples of outstanding reporting around mental health. Among them, the Eastern Daily Press consistently campaigns and reports on failings in the delivery of mental health services which clearly resonate with its readership. 

Perhaps it reflects a lack of trust in national newspapers, at a time when many of the issues that impinge on mental health – immigration, benefits, poverty, disability – are reported in such a polarised way by the biggest selling titles.  Vulnerable people, and those who represent them, are looking for others to tell their stories. 

Hopefully, it is an issue that will be addressed, for mental health needs the wholehearted engagement of national newspapers, just as it needs TV and radio, to end the stigma of mental illness and to bring about the transformation of service delivery that is long overdue. In the meantime, there is much that Fleet Street can learn from the best of the mental health media, as recognised by Mind. 

The shortlist for the Mind Media Awards 2016 can be found here.  

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