The evolving coverage of depression and suicide in the media

In 2017, Netflix released the series 13 Reasons Why, sparking a media frenzy about the show’s portrayal of suicide.

In a recent study, Robert Whitley, an assistant professor in McGill’s Department of Psychiatry, investigated the Canadian media’s coverage of 13 Reasons Why. Collecting data from 20 Canadian news outlets, Whitley’s team found that the series was generally covered in a responsible way; most articles quoted mental health experts and linked the main character’s suicide to broader social issues. Additionally, the majority of the articles did not include the word ‘commit’— a legal term implying criminality— and avoided discussing suicide methods in detail. Describing methods has been linked to suicide contagion, and thus avoiding it is crucial.

The compelling reporting on 13 Reasons Why matches a general trend in mental health coverage. A study from 2005 to 2015 analyzing the portrayal of mental illness in Canadian media noted an increase in articles that incorporated quotes from mental health experts and a decrease in stigmatizing content.

According to Whitley, the overall improvement in the media’s treatment of mental illness is partly due to a set of guidelines from the Mental Health Commission of Canada that dictate how to report on topics related to mental health. The guidelines urge journalists to avoid identifying someone by their disease (e.g. schizophrenic) and to never evaluate suicide as being ‘successful’ or ‘unsuccessful.’

Despite a general improvement in the evolution of media coverage over the last decade, Whitley found that only a small percentage of articles about 13 Reasons Why provided information regarding how suicidal or depressed individuals can get the help they need.

For instance, articles from The Globe and Mail about the recent suicide of designer Kate Spade failed to provide resources outlining available mental health services.

“[Most] journalists are under a lot of pressure to write short articles,” Whitley said. “They don’t always have [the] time or space […] to include all the information we suggest [….] It’s very difficult to include all the information you might want to include in a 600 word article.”

Whitley has nonetheless witnessed a number of campaigns dedicated to overcoming the constraints of media coverage.

“My colleagues have travelled to most of the major journalism schools in Canada including Ryerson, Carleton, UBC [and] Dalhousie and we’ve given seminars,” Whitley said. “I think this has been very [successful] in helping them become better acquainted with mental health knowledge. We’ve also developed an online training course for journalists which is available at the Mental Health Commission of Canada website.”

Programs such as Whitley’s recognize the important influence of the media and push for continued evolution of mental health coverage.

 

If you or someone you know is struggling with mental health you may benefit from seeking support from McGill services such as: Peer Support, Nightline, TAO, Vent Over Tea, SACOMSS and 7 cups. In case of emergency, please call 911 or campus security at 514-398-3000 (Downtown) or 514-398-7777 (Macdonald).

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