August 15, 2023

Mental health in the media: What’s the harm? 

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Mental health in the media: What’s the harm? 

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Keir Taylor, PR & Marketing Assistant:
  • Mental health in society
  • Media coverage of mental health
  • What more needs to be done?

Mental health has always been a difficult subject. Not just for the people who are suffering, but also for the ones who want to help. What’s the best way to help? How can I do more to support loved ones? What can I do to ensure everyone in society gets the support that they need? With any difficult topic comes tougher questions to answer. Nowadays, we’re in an era where mental health is taken seriously, and thankfully these questions are asked more and more every day. 

While work has been done to remove the stigma around mental health, and help people to talk about how they feel and not to suffer in silence, the important question at the end of it all is, are we doing all we can? In short, as a society, I don’t think we are. 

Mental health as a topic is sensitive and instinctively private. For most people, the first time they see mental health struggles brought to the fore is from famous figures in the media. Athletes, musicians, TV and internet personalities, for example, all have people who could be described as unofficial spokespeople on mental health. Tyson Fury, Serena Williams, Naomi Osaka and Demi Lovato are just some of the names who have opened up publicly about their mental health struggles. While well-wishes are commonplace, they’re not guaranteed.

Often when people come forward and talk about the issues they’re facing, the press report on it as a matter of public interest. While this does result in support being shown, it also puts the individual and their situation up for judgement. While I hope this isn’t the media’s intention, it just happens to be a by-product of widespread media attention. So, this brings us to an extremely important question to ask ourselves and society in general, is the front page really the place for individual struggles to be laid bare? Does this do more harm than good?

One prominent example of how media attention has done harm when covering personal struggles is in the case of ex-Love Island presenter and TV personality, Caroline Flack. Less than one year after Caroline Flack’s tragic suicide, Naomi Osaka, the US tennis star withdrew from 2021’s French Open, citing her struggles with her mental health as the primary reason and would therefore be taking a break from the sport. In the aftermath of this decision, which was taken to protect her own mental wellbeing, she was labelled an “arrogant spoiled brat” by media figures such as Piers Morgan. Naturally, I don’t think they want to cause any direct harm to the people they speak about, however, when addressing mental health in this way, it does more harm than good overall. 

The nature of media nowadays is to create content that gets people talking and clicking. The press create content that they think people will want to see, even if it means potentially stepping over a moral line that edges between right and wrong. Focussing on Caroline Flack and Naomi Osaka in this context, if news titles had done what was right instead of what was driving sales, would these situations have played out differently? 

More and more people are seeking help and opening up – 1.74m people accessed mental health services in 2013-14, with that number rising to 3.25m in 2021-22. The public are no strangers to mental health issues by now – should we demand more from our media? Should we resist the dramatised stories of personal struggles? I think so. The role the media plays on topics such as this is crucial. Without the necessary attention, it creates an environment that is difficult to speak up in and where judgement replaces empathy. 

Media has its part to play, but so do we. We must do more to demand better, safer and more respectful reporting around personal struggles and not treat their misfortune as an opportunity for entertainment or gossip. There are real people behind these stories and it’s imperative that we and the media remember that.