Advocates Help Journalists Ease Stigma Caused by Mental Illness

By Chris Adams

As Rebecca Palpant Shimkets notes, one in four people in the U.S. will have a diagnosable mental health condition in any given year. But the vast majority of them will not seek treatment.

It’s that reality that causes Palpant Shimkets, associate director for a journalism fellowship program produced by The Carter Center Mental Health Program, to push writers and reporters to remember that most people – and most families – deal with these issues.

“It’s so easy for us to put people in categories and label them,” she said. “But we so often write about it as if it’s people over there.”

In a session with National Press Foundation fellows, Palpant Shimkets detailed some of the changes she’s witnessed over the years in the media’s treatment of mental health issues. She cited the recent style guidelines from The Associated Press, which now specify:

  • Don’t describe an individual as mentally ill unless it is clearly pertinent to a story and the diagnosis is properly sourced;
  • Don’t use derogatory terms such as “insane,” “crazy” or “nuts”;
  • Avoid using mental health terms to describe non-health issues;
  • Don’t assume mental illness is a factor in a violent crime; and
  • Avoid describing mental illness in ways that connote pity.

She pointed journalists to The Carter Center Journalism Resource Guide on Behavioral Health, which gives detailed information on conditions, treatments and language usage.

This program is funded by The Janssen Pharmaceutical Companies. NPF is solely responsible for the content.

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