Mental Health and the Media

People are increasingly more comfortable discussing mental health issues, and society has adapted to provide a space for this discourse. We are also becoming increasingly voyeuristic and our social media consumption – particularly the news stories we click on – reflects this. When you combine these two advancements, there is a major problem. Complexity is avoided, as a ‘hands off’ approach guarantees clicks and likes as we watch the suffering of others from afar. Online consumers don’t look beyond the content in front of them – they don’t dig deeper to find out why someone is suffering or really question if they are okay.

Should we blame the consumers? No. My finger is pointed squarely at the media.

I was drawn to comment on the shallow and ineffective reporting of mental health issues after recently reading reports about Grant Hackett and, to an extent, Dan Vickerman. Both are incredible Australian athletes whose lives were, and are, affected by mental health issues. The reporting was absolutely atrocious, skirting around the issues and in Hackett’s instance, treating readers like viewers of a reality TV show. Not once did the reporters step back and consider the harm being done. Of course not, when a hyperbolic and inflammatory headline is sure to reach a quota of clicks online.

Australian rugby player Christian Lealiifano has recently entered remission for Leukaemia. During treatment, the only images shared with the public were those posted on Instagram by close friends and teammates; the only news content published celebrated his successful surgery with accompanying stock photos from his playing days. In comparison, photographs of Grant Hackett leaving a police station, as well as shots of his father and family have covered our screens and filled the pages of national newspapers. The coverage of Hackett’s struggle was, in short, the media taking advantage of a man and a family who were suffering and in obvious grief. A similar thing happened when paparazzi shots of Dan Vickerman’s grieving wife and children at his funeral were released. This is not news. This is not helping reduce the stigma surrounding mental health. Yet editors will pat themselves on the back and look forward to their EOFY bonus because they got people reading and clicking, and they didn’t forget to tokenistically include the number for Lifeline at the bottom of the article.

Shouldn’t the role of the media be to inform and help members of society, instead of trivialising trauma? Where is the focus on refuting the ridiculous misconception that having mental health issues makes you weak? What about a continued investigation into the number of suicides amongst injury prone young footballers? How about a front page article on the work of organisations such as Batyr, which is working within universities to smash the stigma surrounding mental health? What about Outside the Locker Room, a Victorian based welfare and educational program for local sporting clubs across the country? No, none of these articles would guarantee the internet traffic to appease advertisers. But a heartbroken family at their father’s funeral will. And this is what we see.

I believe this media’s selective representation of mental health stories is affecting some parts of society as well. It is now okay to say you aren’t feeling great, and are struggling, but that’s where it stops. No one wants to ask the hard questions. Instead, the attitude the media has taken in their reporting is apparent in wider society’s approach to mental health. In our liberal university-educated circles, sure, it is okay to delve deeper and there are people willing and brave enough to do so. But in the wider world, this is not the case. Consumers on the whole are not compassionate. Someone who is suffering doesn’t want to be told it’s okay to not be okay. People with mental health issues know there are services available – what they cannot do is feel safe or see a clear path to approach the problem. But as reporting on mental health issues show, there is a misconception of weakness, and journalists are doing nothing to fix this.

Suicide is the biggest killer of men and women aged 15 – 44 in Australia. Yet, instead of discussing this issue in a mature and measured sense, the media gives us photos of a grieving family. How can we be surprised we are in the grips of a crisis?

I am not, however, saying that all reporting of mental health issues is poor. 60 Minutes’ report of 5 March 2017 is a shining example of news reporting fighting the stigma and supporting those who are vulnerable. But this is just one positive example. It is not enough.

Next time a photo of Grant Hackett leaving a police station with a black eye pops up in your social media feed, remember that it comes down to us as consumers to be discerning and not click on these stories. Do not forget the power we have as consumers – not clicking or liking a story can limit its scope and the traffic it gets. We have the ability to be responsible users, we must not forget this. If each of us is discerning, we will see change occur in the news that is published. When we lose as many people as we do on a daily basis, how can we afford not to care?