by Anya Weber
At the annual convention of the American Copy Editors Society, self-styled “word nerds” gather to discuss writing good headlines, using social media, and editing jargon-filled prose. At this year’s convention, several sessions also addressed topics related to disability, mental health, and accessibility. We’ll be covering some of those here on the blog.
Melissa McCoy from TEAM Up gave a talk called “Mental Health Matters,” aimed at journalists, bloggers, and others who write and edit news stories. McCoy emphasized the importance of covering mental health (MH) issues in a non-judgmental, non-inflammatory way.
McCoy works with reporters and news editors in CA on the way they portray mental illness. One in four Americans in any given year will experience a mental health issue, so it’s crucial to write about MH topics in a clear and well-researched way.
Usually the media only mentions mental health when it’s connected to a crisis or a crime (murder, suicide, etc.). McCoy urged her listeners to write more stories about positive or neutral aspects of MH—for example, looking at ways the Affordable Care Act impacts medical insurance for people with MH issues.
Sensitive coverage is especially important when writing about suicide. According to a report shared by the Suicide Prevention Research Center, “Research finds an increase in suicide by readers or viewers when:
- The number of stories about individual suicides increases
- A particular death is reported at length or in many stories
- The story of an individual death by suicide is placed on the front page or at the beginning of a broadcast
- The headlines about specific suicide deaths are dramatic…”
This phenomenon is known as “suicide contagion.” To help avoid it, McCoy said, we can write about suicide in a way that does not romanticize it or portray it as the result of one dramatic moment.
When writing about mental health, McCoy suggested asking ourselves: Is it relevant to the story? Who’s my source? Is there a diagnosis, or is it someone’s opinion (e.g., a police officer referring to a woman who stabbed someone as “mentally ill”)?
In a case like that, said McCoy, it’s fine to report what the officer said, but writers should frame it as “Officer Smith characterized Ms. Jones as ‘mentally ill.’”
McCoy cautioned writers against using MH terms in a slangy or joking way: “This sports team has been really schizophrenic this year” or “The stock market was bipolar today.” This is common, but demeaning, and adds to fear and stigma around MH issues. It’s our job as writers to raise the level of discourse.
Finally, McCoy suggested including a sidebar or end note with a help line number or website such as suicidepreventionlifeline.org (1-800-273-8255).
You can learn more about good writing practices around MH and suicide at these websites: