THE BLOG

A Letter to Journalists

08/05/2015 16:53 BST | Updated 08/05/2016 10:59 BST

Dear journalists,

I understand that you want an interesting story and that you want to grip your readers and keep them reading on. I get that okay but when it comes to reporting on mental health please realise how important it is to report responsibly. There is so much stigma and misunderstanding around mental health and you have the platform to change that. Please don't look for a juicy story, be different and write a real story. You'll probably find that more people respect your articles and want to buy your magazine or newspaper if it's full of truths rather than lies and twisting words.

Unfortunately a lot of mental health stories are heart-breaking and shocking enough, they do not need to be made juicy. If someone has spent a night in a cell because there were no 'places of safety' available then that's is gobsmacking, appalling and you don't need to add anything other than write the pure facts of what happened. Adding irresponsible lines like, "It took a brush with the law to finally turn her life around" is so damaging. It criminalises mental illness. Spending a night in a cell because there wasn't a hospital bed to go for is not a brush with the law, it's a failure on the government's part. That person is not a criminal.

Please understand that you are not writing a fictional story in a book with a beginning, a middle and an end. The person does not have to be miraculously recovered at the end. Obviously, it is nice to give hope but it is also important that other people can relate. My battle with mental illness has been life long, I didn't have a perfect life, get ill and then have a perfect life again. I have a chronic condition but I am learning to live with it and to cope with it and that is the kind of hope I would like to read about rather than the fairy-tale and predictable stories I see written time and time again about mental illness.

Be careful with wording, words can be a powerful tool or a powerful weapon so use them wisely. If you don't know much about mental health then that's okay but make sure you do your research and check out the media guidelines that mental health charities have. A widely misused term is 'commit suicide' but this is actually unacceptable to say. People commit fraud or murder but people don't commit suicide because it is not a crime. People often say it without thinking but the power of those words is incredible. Stigma around suicide is dangerous, it stops people from speaking out and silences those suicidal feelings that ultimately can lead to death. Use the term 'Died from suicide' or if you are quoting a survivor use, "I wanted to die" for example.

Make sure that you are reporting safely, do not tell people how to end their lives by going into detail about a method of suicide, don't go into detail about how a person self-harmed. Be aware that unwell and vulnerable people will be reading your words. Do not put them at risk by triggering them for your own personal gain. When reporting about eating disorders do not mention numbers, they are unhelpful as they will cause other sufferers to compare. It is in the nature of eating disorders to convince the sufferer that they are not ill enough to seek help and get well. Publishing numbers related to weight or calorific intake will just cause other sufferers to feel like they are not unwell enough to recover. Numbers hold no relevance to the story and reinforce the stereotype that people can only have an eating disorder if they are severely underweight which is not true. People have died from their eating disorders at what would be considered a 'healthy' weight.

Remember that the person you are writing about is not just a story. To you, journalism is your job but it is that person's life and they have feelings, aspirations and family and friends. They are potentially quite vulnerable and if you use and abuse the person's story by trying to make it juicy then you are also putting that person's life at risk. What you say can affect that person and their career. If they are already fighting with suicidal thoughts then you really are playing a dangerous game. Words are amazing, being a journalist is amazing. You have such a fantastic platform to send out powerful messages to change society for the good. Make sure your words do good and don't cause harm to individuals or society as a whole. Let's keep talking about mental health but let's take a new, real and safe approach.

Best wishes,

Claire Greaves

Need help? In the UK, call The Samaritans on 08457 90 90 90. For more support and advice, visit the website here.