The role of the media in our mental health… can we afford to take the “it’s not my job” approach?
This week I was invited to attend an expert advisory session on reporting on suicide. This was facilitated by Headline, Ireland’s national media monitoring programme whose aim is to promote responsible and accurate coverage of mental health and suicide related issues within the Irish media. The meeting was open to editors, journalists and broadcasters and it was meant as a brain storming session where those present could ask questions on how the media could report responsibly on suicide, what supports could be created to make this happen across all media outlets and throw out ideas on how the media could be used to advance the conversation of mental health in Ireland.
I have to be honest with you at the start of the meeting I felt intimidated by the people sitting at the table because many of them have been working in media for much longer than I have and at one point I even wondered what I could possibly contribute to the discussion.
Caroline McGuigan, our resident psychotherapist on Global Village, was present at the meeting and highlighted a point that really should be at the forefront of every person who works in media. When reporting on suicide or mental health related stories journalist must do as if the story was about their mother, father, sister or brother… sensitively, respectfully and with utmost care for the person involved and their loved ones. This approach should really frame all our work in the media and although we have a clatter of guidelines and codes which of course all necessary, but there’s nothing quite as powerful as bringing it down to basics. Thanks Caroline!
There was another broadcaster present from another station who said that the media had gone from not talking about mental health to talking too much about it but many of the conversations were confusing and unhelpful to the listener. This according to the broadcaster was because there were too many organizations working in the area of mental health, too many helplines, GP’s were hit and miss as some were helpful and others are not and that the government was failing by not taking the lead on tackling this thorny issue. The person went on to say that the Irish mental health sector should get their act together and start working together.
Although this was an excellent observation on the sector I found this provoked 2 questions for me – firstly, what is the role of the media when it comes to mental health and secondly who is responsible for improving the mental health of our nation? Is it our job as journalists to just to report or simply reflect what is out there word for word, the good, the bad and the ugly? Or when it comes to mental health do we report on it all but also carry the cautionary message that ultimately you are in charge and in the driver’s seat of your own mental health – here are the options, the helplines, the supports services but ultimately you are the expert of your own mental health.
Then when it comes to who is responsible for improving the mental health of the nation, is it the GP’s, the mental health practitioners, the helplines, the support services, or is it the government? The answer for me is in keeping with my personal mantra – be the change! We all have an individual and collective responsibility for improving the mental health of our nation and this includes the media. What we say impacts on the mental health of our viewers, readers and listeners so we cannot afford to take the “it’s not my job approach” when it comes to the mental health of the nation.