In early March the Associated Press released new standards for reporters and editors regarding metal illness. To comply, we’re asked to only include mental health details if they’re relevant to the story and come as a specific diagnosis from an attributed source.
Over one in four adults have a diagnosable mental illness in the United States, according to the National Institute of Mental Illness. Within that large portion of our population each individual experiences their condition differently.
The National Alliance on Mental Illness issued a statement calling the new standards, “a seismic shift in the terrain of popular culture.”
In the statement, Bob Carolla, NAMI Director of Media Relations, says, “For years, NAMI has worked to have the news media abandon inaccurate, careless, or stigmatizing language or practices in reporting on mental illness.”
A lot of that stigmatizing language emerged in the debate around weapons access after the tragic shootings in Aurora, Colorado and Newtown, Colorado. I’m thinking specifically of rock n’ roller Ted Nugent’s commentary published in The Washington Times: “Nut control, not gun control: Failure to deal with mental illness leads to massacres.”
The AP standards do not pertain to statements from individuals and organizations, but it will hold a large group of information producers and disseminators – the news media – responsible for their language.
The guide clarifies: “Mental illness is a general condition. Specific disorders are types of mental illness and should be used whenever possible.”
It cautions journalists away from making assumptions or interpretations about subject’s mental health and from drawing connections between crimes and mental health concerns.
“Do not assume that mental illness is a factor in a violent crime, and verify statements to that effect. A past history of mental illness is not necessarily a reliable indicator. Studies have shown that the vast majority of people with mental illness are not violent, and experts say most people who are violent do not suffer from mental illness,” state the guidelines.
Terms such as “deranged” or “crazy” are classified as “derogatory” in the guide, and writers are cautioned against referring to folks as “victims of” or “suffering from” their disorders.
You can read the guide here, and I recommend that you do. It discourages the sensationalizing of mental illness that often arises around violent crime, and encourages reporters to be deliberate when referencing folks’ mental health. The way that we characterize issues in the media impacts the tone of national conversations and the individuals they characterize.