More positive mental health stories in the media

A trend in recent years has been for celebrities and notable people to share their mental health stories via social media channels or interviews and news reports. 

On the face of it, this appears to be a good thing and, in most cases, it’s well-intentioned but the bone we have to pick is this: almost all ‘celebrity’ mental health stories conform to the lifelong illness narrative. You’re stuck with this depression, anxiety, phobia or disorder for good and there’s little you can do about it, is the dominant narrative. 

Worse, the celebrities being held up as mental health spokespeople offer advice on ‘living’ with mental health issues. Anyone struggling with something like depression could read this as confirming their view that they’re stuck with this lifelong illness (not true in a vast majority of cases) and the best they can wish for is to manage its impact and hope for the best. 

Of course, we’re not saying that people in the media shouldn’t speak about mental health, but we would suggest that people with influence have a responsibility to think carefully about the message they’re sending. 

Is it a positive, recovery-led message that empowers the reader to take control of their mental health, or one that adds to feelings of helplessness in the face of their apparently incurable depression or anxiety?

Too many offer unhelpful advice such as: “Generally, people are like, ‘I need to meditate more’ or ‘I need to get into yoga.’ And I need to, like, eat a cheeseburger and just, like, smoke cigarettes and hang out. So if I write the self-help book, it’s going to be like, ‘Sit on the couch and play some video games.’”

The media cover these stories using words like “refreshing” to describe these reports but they’re not anymore – maybe five years ago but not now.

Refreshing would be a celebrity shouting from the rooftops about overcoming an issue and how life is isn’t a struggle, or how they learnt to overcome their anxiety rather than just living and coping with it.

Greater acceptance of different mental health diagnostic tools and criteria 

We wrote about challenging existing mental health diagnostic criteria and methods recently, and it’d be a step forward for models like this to receive widespread use in the medical community.

Too often, the diagnostic criteria used to assess issues, such as an anxiety-based disorder, trap the person in a medicalised whirlpool of treatment, medication and unhelpful language that offer little hope of recovery and a normal life. 

By approaching an issue in a fundamentally different way, one that looks into the root causes of that person’s mental illness, we can offer an understanding of why that person feels this way and what they can do to address the issue. 

As Dr Lucy Johnstone – a passionate supporter of changing the way we diagnose mental health issues – stated during her excellent Thrive Conference 2018 lecture: “‘We shouldn’t be asking “What’s wrong with you?’ We should be asking “What happened to you?”

More mental health training in schools

Schools are the front line of the battle against mental ill health but movement in finding solutions that really help pupils seems to be slow and focused on measures such as introducing yoga classes or installing medication pods.  

Neither helps a pupil develop the mental resilience or coping skills they’ll need in adult life and it certainly doesn’t help them understand their mental health in a way that empowers, quite the opposite is true in many cases. 

So, for 2018, we’d like to see this happen: recognising the huge economic benefit of mentally healthy young people, the Government invests several billion into training students and teachers about how to effectively manage mental health from year one.

Alongside Physical Education every week, we’d want to see regular and sustained training programmes implemented in every school so every pupil is taught how their mental health works from an early age. 

Moving on from campaigns about stigma and awareness 

The last 12 months has seen lots of well-meaning campaigns based around raising awareness and reducing stigma around mental health. Many of these have been led by large, well-funded charities with serious clout.

But we’re in the midst of the mental health crisis that needs urgently addressing and it’s right to question how campaigns stuck on rising awareness and reducing stigma genuinely help people overcome their issues. They don’t, generally.

Many campaigns simply further the idea that you’re stuck with a mental health issue for life, that your disorder is a big powerful thing happening to you and the only way to make the situation better is to talk about it with someone or post on Twitter using their hashtag. 

An expert in this field, Dr Lucy Johnstone isn’t a fan of such campaigns: “There is a lot of research to show that, at some level, this message, which carries the theme that you are biologically different – your genes, your biochemistry – increases stigma and decreases hope for recovery. It doesn’t increase people’s sense of agency – it doesn’t move them forward.”

For 2018, we want to see charities and NGOs running campaigns promoting the idea that, although anyone can suffer from poor mental health, almost everyone also has the power to overcome their issues. The easiest way to reduce stigma is for there to be nothing to stigmatise in the first place. 

Responsible reporting of mental health – not following unhelpful narratives

When even reputable news-gathering organisations run stories on mental health, too often the storytelling is left to the sufferer and this often produces a narrative that focuses on being stuck with mental illness for life due to it being a magical, mysterious force that rules over us. 

We would argue that it’s now time to question the narrative given, in the same way that a journalist might question a politician about what they’re saying. Journalists need to think about that they’re being told and the impact this has on their readers: is this a helpful point of view or is it furthering one side of a narrative that could be harmful?

Stories like the BBC’s coverage of a YouTube star’s mental health disorder is typical. Nowhere does it question the narrative given – that a vaguely described disorder rules this person’s life and that one attempt at treatment was enough. They’re also letting the subject use their mental health as currency to promote a new music career, so the account of their experience might be tainted by a desire to achieve media coverage.

Going forward, we want to see journalists actively questioning what they’re being told by non-experts about mental health. It might be tough to suggest to someone that their issue isn’t a medical disorder and that it’s not life-long, but they would be closer to their truth if they did offer such alternative views and it would be infinitely more helpful for the reader to understand mental health in this way.