Canadian News Media Regularly Stigmatize People with Mental Illness

Symposium targets journalism students

TORONTO, Feb. 2, 2012 /CNW/ - Ryerson journalism students learned today that the Canadian news media stigmatize people with mental illness. Students heard from a McGill researcher who has found that almost 40% of news articles about mental illness focus on danger, violence and criminality and only 12% of articles take an optimistic tone.

The Mental Health Commission of Canada (MHCC) hosted Mental Illness and Stigma in News Reporting, a symposium at Ryerson University in Toronto. The symposium was designed to get journalism students thinking about how the stories they choose to write and the words they use can perpetuate stigma.

"The media has considerable influence on shaping public opinion," says Micheal Pietrus, director of the MHCC's Opening Minds program. "Negative depictions of mental illness in the media can play a role in perpetuating stereotypes and misconceptions."

Stigma is a major barrier that prevents people with mental health issues from seeking help. Many people living with mental illness say the stigma they experience is often worse than the illness itself.

"We understand the importance of responsible journalism," says Gavin Adamson, assistant professor, School of Journalism, Ryerson University. "We want to ensure our budding journalists are aware of how their choice of language, tone, facts used and not used in their reporting can have both a positive and a negative impact on people with mental illness."

Ryerson students heard from Rob Whitley, Assistant Professor, Douglas Mental Health University Institute, McGill University, who is leading an MHCC-funded project that is analyzing the content, language and tone used in news reports about mental illness. According to Whitley, the research group has collected close to 10,000 news stories from English and French media in Canada that date back over the last six years. "So far our analysis indicates a tendency for some of the news media to associate mental illness with violence, crime and homelessness," he says. The preliminary results of the study will be released at the international conference, Together Against Stigma: Changing how we see mental illness, June 4-6 in Ottawa.

André Picard, a well-known public health reporter for The Globe and Mail, talked about the role of journalists.  Other speakers included two individuals with lived experience of mental illness and a photojournalist whose father has schizophrenia and who has spent much of his life living on the streets of Montréal.

In 2011, a similar symposium was conducted with journalism students at the University of King's College, Halifax. Following the event, students showed a significant decrease in their level of stigma toward people living with mental illness. 75% said they would do something differently as a result of attending the symposium, such as change their views about people with a mental illness.

About the Mental Health Commission of Canada (MHCC)
The Mental Health Commission of Canada is a catalyst for transformative change. Our mission is to work with stakeholders to change the attitudes of Canadians toward mental health problems and to improve services and support. Our goal is to promote mental health and help people who live with mental health problems lead meaningful and productive lives. The Mental Health Commission of Canada is funded by Health Canada.

Opening Minds is the MHCC's Anti-Stigma Initiative designed to change the attitudes and behaviours of Canadians towards those living with mental illness. The initiative is currently evaluating anti-stigma programs across Canada to identify which are successful at changing attitudes and behaviours related to mental illnesses. The successful programs are replicated elsewhere in the country. Opening Minds is also working with journalism schools and the media to identify myths and misconceptions associated with mental illness to create a network of change and decrease stigma.

SOURCE Mental Health Commission of Canada

For further information:

Kristin Bernhard, Communication Specialist
Office: 403 385 4066
Cell: 403 620 2339


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