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Media should be sensitive while reporting on mental illness and violence

Contrary to popular perception, people with mental illness are more likely to be victims rather than perpetrators of violence

Reporting on incidents of violence, particularly when they involve a person with a mental health issue, can be challenging. Last week, a person who was being treated in a psychiatric hospital was involved in a firing incident, which was reported widely across newspapers and television channels in the country. While some reports made assumptions on the nature of the mental health issue, others used sensational adjectives to describe a scene they hadn't witnessed. Inaccurate reporting, by contributing to wrong public perceptions on violence and mental illness, can cause great damage to the fight against stigma. In a conversation with White Swan Foundation, Dr V Senthil Kumar Reddi, associate professor of psychiatry, NIMHANS, offers some guidelines on reporting about mental illness.

How can incidents of violence involving people with mental illness be reported sensitively?

As with unfortunate events associated with patients suffering from mental illness, often there is a fragmented reporting of facts, or a reporting of incorrect facts that pertains to violence associated with mental illness, or even suicide. It is advisable that we provide factual information in general about the nature of the incident. The incident need not be replayed with specific information.

How can the media be more sensitive and not contribute to stigmatization while reporting on such cases?

It’s very important that the specific details of the incident are omitted; a blow by blow account is not always relevant and often innacurate because the facts may not be clear or readily available. More objective reporting is required: state that such an incident occurred, mention if someone was harmed (or not). This can be used as an opportunity to educate the community at large that it was probably not the mental illness that contributed to the violence, and there were probably other reasons that led to it. They can also share any literature related to the misconceptions about violence among people with mental illness, and the issues that contribute to violence.

What impact does inaccurate reporting have on people with mental illness?

Often, one particular event with incorrect reporting or headlines enhances the stigma against people with mental illness and enhances the perception that mentally ill people are capable of severe violence, and that their mental illness makes them cause violence. Many people with mental illness in the community may be victimized and marginalized; they may be assaulted or be victims of violence from the community as a result of the perceptions created by these reports. 

There seems to be a belief that people with mental illness are more violent by nature when compared to people who don’t have a mental illness. Is this true?

The truth is actually very different from this perception, and I say this on the basis of objective evidence and studies that have been conducted. These studies have been done across the world. Within the population of people with mental illness, there is only a small percentage that are violent, and the numbers vary from five to 15 per cent. That means out of a hundred people with mental illness, there are only five – or fifteen, at the maximum – who are likely to be violent, or have demonstrated this violence. The victims of this violence are immediate family members rather than unknown members of the community. The reasons for the violence are also not directly related to the mental illness; they are due to issues like interpersonal relationships. There have been other studies that have looked at a community of people who have been convicted of violent crimes. It has been consistently demonstrated that a mere four per cent of all crimes that are committed are caused by mentally ill persons. So the other 96 per cent crimes are committed by people who do not have a mental illness. The majority of people who commit violent crimes are not mentally ill. People with mental illness are no more violent than the rest of the population, and mental illness does not confer a direct risk of violence, especially serious violence to others.

You said that a mental illness does not, by itself, make a person violent. What could cause a person with mental illness to commit an act of violence?

There have been studies that featured people who have the same illness, among which there were individuals who had been violent, and those who hadn’t. Some people are not violent and others are. Some factors that exist in these individuals who got violent, and also in the same community could lead to their behavior:

  1. Abuse of alcohol and drugs or intoxication: most people in the larger community who are addicted to drugs or have a history of abuse tend to be more violent.
  2. The presence of certain personality characteristics such as impulsivity, aggression, poor education, poverty and low socioeconomic status.

These are factors that confer a risk of violence on any individual, irrespective of whether they have a mental illness or not. So obviously, if these factors are present in an individual with mental illness, they are likely to be more violent than a person who suffers from the same illness but does not have these risk factors.

What language would you recommend the media use while speaking about mental illness?

It’s better to refer to the disorder by its medical term rather than using words like ‘mentally ill’. Using the term ‘mentally ill’ paints all people who have mental illness with the same brush. There are only certain types of illnesses that pose a higher likelihood of violence. Someone with severe depression or anxiety disorder may actually not be violent by way of their illness. Even with people who have schizophrenia, they are more likely to be victims of violence themselves, and not the perpetrators. People with schizophrenia are assaulted by the community.

The same violence occurs across a large number of contexts. The media often does not cover instances of violence that are not associated with mental illness in such extensive detail. When there is sensationalization, there is a high chance that the instance reported could be copied, or that there is victimization. This victimization is not just limited to the people with mental illness – their family and friends may also be stigmatized by association.

 

Guidelines on reporting about violence and mental illness

Experts offer the following recommendations to mediapersons reporting on cases involving people with mental illness:

 

Dos

Don’ts

  • Mention the name of the disorder by its medical term
  • Publish the story in the inner pages
  • Provide objective, factual information, no adjectives
  • If absolutely necessary to make a mention of the person’s illness, use terms such as ‘a person with schizophrenia’ or ‘a person with bipolar disorder’
  • Share accurate information about the disorder, and explain the myths and facts.
  • Use blanket terms such as “mentally ill”, “mentally unstable”or “mentally retarded”
  • Use the story on page 1. Avoid giving it undue importance
  • Mention mental illness as being the cause of the violence
  • Speculate or replay the incident or provide specific information
  • Use labels such as mentally-ill person, maniac, schizophrenic, alcoholic, etc. This defines the person by their disorder.