THE BLOG

Media Sensationalism Is Stereotyping Mental Health

24/08/2015 13:42 BST | Updated 23/08/2016 10:59 BST

Images and headlines are the amuse bouche to any article. Too bland and the reader will leave. Inject enough spice and they stay the course.

In a saturated market, I can see how competition drives media sensationalism. For a journalist, controversy sells like cumin on curry night. What they overlook is the cost.

A picture says a thousand words, but are they the strongest ones? I have never publicly buried my head into my hands; I rarely cry beyond closed doors. I haven't lived on a scale, nor taken a photo of my rib cage in a mirror. Weight is a symptom, and the cause cannot be measured by tape, yet the tape measure is one of the stock images. I recognise it would be impossible to find a picture, which truly captures mental illness. Nonetheless, national media does provides a very narrow portrayal of these issues. .

Subject: anorexia. Headline: *low weight statistic* Image: emaciation.

Unwritten: The girl who is borderline underweight and told how "beautiful and slim" she is. The boy who googles the restaurant menu half a dozen times and still shakes as the waiter comes to his table. The man who is a healthy weight and sits down to every meal with the devil on his shoulder. The woman who untags herself from photos on Facebook or cries when they come up. The fitness blogger who thousands look to as the epitome of health. Who is terrified to 'come out' because she feels " ashamed" to have let those people down.

People hear 'eating disorder' and they picture emaciation. When people battling with illness are being told that their weight is not low enough for treatment, reading an article on the girl who weighed 0.0001kg, accompanied by lowest weight photos (with no trigger warning), will offer little comfort.

When it comes to anorexia, the media is still treating it as a weight disorder. During her talks at the University of Exeter in May, journalist Emma Woolf recalled the moment Daily Mail reporters from a national newspaper asked her for low weight photos. She responded that she didn't have any, but was shocked the question had been asked. For a publication that challenges 'thinspiration', this revelation is deeply unsettling. Nevertheless, other publications show that low weight photos are not an isolated occurrence.

With regards to the same paper, Kerry Hooten's story of recovery was tainted by editorial decisions; she was upset how it made social media the "main focus" of the article, and went as far as to "create a weight" for her. Even more recently, Poppy Cross' article on fitness blogger Celia Learmonth was edited to fit the sensationalist tone of the publication. When I learnt the truth behind both pieces, I felt so frustrated; all these two girls wanted to do was raise awareness, but the paper prioritised a headline.

It is for this reason that the recurrent image of the "head-in-hands" is so commonplace. Despite the stereotype, when talking about anxiety or depression it is instantly identifiable; this is the product of years' recurrent use.

Some of the most powerful illustrations of mental illness, such as the one above, are created by artists. Huffington Post series' on Depression and Anxiety offer more insight than circulating stock photos ever could. These are the images that need to be shared. They are the face of mental illness, beyond the media makeup. Like untouched magazine photos, they are rarely seen.

All too often people read depression and see outward distress. Didn't Robin Williams' tragic death teach us anything? The people who scream the loudest are not the only ones hurting. The man who laughs the loudest as he reads an awards speech, could view himself as the biggest failure in the room. The life and soul of a party may be crying herself to sleep hours later.

The platform of mental health has never been stronger, with members of the public and politicians fighting for equal recognition with physical health. To continue this we need to reduce sensationalism in journalism. I do not blame the media exclusively for mental illness; on the contrary, it has done a lot of raise awareness. Yet like photoshop, journalism has created a distorted image of reality, and the potential casualties are beyond measure.

This is not about political correctness, or sparing a weight-concsious teenager's feelings. As Huffington Post writer Claire Greaves wrote in Letter to Journalists : "journalism is your job but it is a person's life". Erase the headline statistics, set aside the visual scales and head grips. Appearance is evidence.

A line needs to be drawn when stirring the pot for a headline. This line is mental health.