Quick Tips to Improve Mental Health Reporting

Reporting on a Story That Includes Both Violence and Mental Illness

News stories about violence committed by people with mental illness will continue to occur. By following a few guidelines, news organizations can more accurately report about these tragic situations.

  • Ask whether mental illness is important to the story.  Follow Stylebook guidance for reporting on people with disabilities.  Do not assume that an illogical act of violence is the result of mental illness.  Like people in the general population, people with mental illness are involved with violence when there is no connection between their illness and actions.
  • When quoting a witness or first responder, avoid unsubstantiated attributions of the violence to mental illness.  For example, the statement that a crime was committed by a person who has a “history of mental illness” is often made on-scene by a first responder who may not have direct knowledge of a subject’s history.  Even if this information is accurate, it may not be relevant to the incident.  Such comments should always be attributed to a reliable source with actual knowledge about a subject’s history and can speak to the relevance of this information.
  • Question whether reporting someone’s history of mental illness is relevant to the news story.  Mental illness is not a defining characteristic of a person.  Mental illness in the past may not have relevance to behavior in the present.
  • Avoid descriptions of an individual’s behavior that would contribute to the impression that all persons with that illness exhibit similar behavior.  For example, terms such as “schizophrenic rage” create the impression that rages are common behaviors for people experiencing schizophrenia.
  • Make a mental health expert a part of the story.  Privacy laws make it difficult for mental health professionals to comment on news stories in which they are directly involved.  A mental health expert can, however, provide perspective on the story even if they are not directly involved.
  • Recognize that people with mental illness who commit violent acts are not typical of others with the same or similar diagnoses.  When possible, emphasize the statistical fact that mental illness contributes very little to the overall rate of violence in the general population. 
  • Try to convey that mental illness is treatable and recovery happens.
  • Remember that for every story written about mental illness and violence there are many more that can be written about a person with a mental disorder in recovery who serves a valuable role in society. There are many people who have lived through an experience of serious mental illness who have a compelling personal story about recovery. Write human interest stories when possible. When the readers or viewers see only stories about violence and mental illness, they get a distorted view of the facts.