National Council of Social Service launches guide for media reporting on mental health issues

A study of 2,000 local media articles found that stigmatising phrases such as "mentally ill" were used. ST PHOTO: KELVIN CHNG

SINGAPORE - As part of efforts to address the stigma associated with mental health conditions, the National Council of Social Service (NCSS) on Tuesday (March 16) launched a guide with words and phrases that should be avoided when reporting on the issue.

For example, the phrase "someone with a mental health condition" is preferred over terms such as "mentally ill", "psycho", "mad" or "crazy".

Aside from stigmatising terms and their suggested alternatives, the Beyond the Label Media Guide contains suggestions on how people with mental health conditions should be interviewed, as well as angling and headlining stories, and reporting on violence and suicides.

The guide was developed in consultation with social service agencies, mental health professionals, persons with mental health conditions and members of local media.

Ms Anita Fam, president of NCSS, said the guide provides recommendations for media professionals reporting on mental health issues or writing about incidents involving persons with mental health conditions.

"We believe that the media is and can be instrumental in influencing and changing attitudes and behaviour, educating and encouraging people to think differently about mental health, and to be aware of the problem of stigma associated with mental health conditions," added Ms Fam.

The guide follows work NCSS did in 2018, when it launched the first nationwide mental health anti-stigma campaign "Beyond the Label".

It was aimed at correcting misperceptions, raising awareness and promoting greater social inclusion of people in recovery from mental health conditions.

The issue was also addressed earlier this month when Dr Janil Puthucheary, Senior Minister of State for Health and Communications and Information, said during the debate on the Health Ministry's budget last week that the Covid-19 mental health task force would be transformed into an inter-agency platform to oversee mental health and well-being efforts beyond the pandemic.

The guide was introduced after a study by NCSS and the Singapore Management University showed that about 40 per cent of articles about mental health were crime-related.

NCSS said this may give the public cause to link mental illness with crime. In contrast, the study found that only about 15 per cent of articles highlighted care, prevention and recovery.

The study had examined 2,000 local media articles from 2016 to 2019.

In addition, the study found that stigmatising phrases such as "mentally ill" were used, especially in the headlines of articles.

Ms Porsche Poh, executive director of Silver Ribbon (Singapore), said: "You don't say a person with skin problem or cancer was caught for attacking someone. If you don't mention a physical illness why mention a mental illness?"

Silver Ribbon is a non-profit organisation dedicated to combating mental health stigma and helping those with mental health conditions integrate into society.

She said positive reports on mental health may encourage people with such conditions to see that they can lead a productive life.

In the book's foreword, editor-at-large of The Straits Times Han Fook Kwang said stories that stigmatise people result in readers no longer looking for the whys and hows behind an incident, as they have already formed their own stereotyped views.

"I learnt much from this guide and wished it was available when I was in the newsroom. It pains me to think of the number of times we might have fallen short.

"Looking back, I think we were largely ignorant and did not know our work could have such a stigmatising effect. This guide should help journalists do better," added Mr Han.

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