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Reporters Continue to Misrepresent Mental Illness

Violence continues to attract too much attention, and it’s time media and politicians figure that out.

By Nathan Collins


(Photo: Simon Blackley/Flickr)

Depression affects something like one-quarter of all Americans at some point, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. What’s more, neuropsychiatric disorders are the leading cause of disability in the United States today (and we spend a lot of money treating it). Clearly, mental illness affects a many people—and very, very few of those people are mass murderers.

Which is why it’s more than a little weird that 55 percent of news stories that mention mental illness also focus on violence—as in, that guy who just shot up his family/school/office/movie theater was mentally ill—according to a new study.

Johns Hopkins Assistant Professor of Health Policy and Management Emma McGinty and her colleagues do not mince words: “Initiatives to educate reporters and the opinion leaders they use as sources … are needed,” they write this week in Health Affairs.

To figure out what journalists actually write about when they cover mental health, the researchers searched the ProQuest and LexisNexis news archives between 1995 and 2014 for mentions of mental illness and related terms, including anxiety, depression, post-traumatic stress disorder, and attention deficit disorder. That search yielded nearly 23,000 articles, so the team winnowed their results to 400 stories, chosen at random, that focused primarily on mental illness.

Fifty-five percent of news stories that mention mental illness also focus on violence.

Over two decades, 55 percent of the stories mentioned violence in connection with mental illness, the researchers found. Twenty-nine percent mentioned suicide, and 38 percent mentioned interpersonal violence—someone with mental illness attacking someone else. In that latter group, “nearly three-quarters depicted a specific violent event committed by a person with or purported to have a mental illness,” McGinty and her colleagues write. “The most frequent type of events depicted were gun violence events,” such as family shootings, mass shootings, and school shootings.

Mass shootings received particularly heavy coverage. The fraction of stories focused on mass shootings more than doubled from the first to the second decade of the study period, and the proportion of newspaper stories that made the front page increased from 1 percent in 1995–2004 to 18 percent in 2005–2014.

On the bright side, nearly half of news stories—47 percent—mentioned treatment, typically focusing on access to and funding for treatment.

“Coverage has continued to emphasize interpersonal violence in a way that is highly disproportionate to actual rates of such violence among the U.S. population with mental illness,” which likely contributes to mental-health stigma, the researchers write, while cutting support for policies that might actually help people with mental illness.