Mass Media and Mental Illness

Mass Media and Mental Illness

This is the first post about mass media and psychiatry. Trends in the newspapers in the United States on reporting topics of mental illness:

  • Most stories in newspapers in relation to mental illness were mostly about dangerousness (39%). Not danger to others but mostly stories with text related to violent crime (25%). Thirteen percent of the stories were related to suicidal or self-injurious behavior, only 4% dealt with mental illness as a variable related to being victimized by crime. These stories were mostly on the front page increasing impact. Stories in the entertainment section did not focus on dangerousness more often than other sections
  • Causes mentioned in newspaper articles for developing a mental illness:
    • parental misbehavior (2 percent)
    • fewer stories blamed mentally ill persons for their illness (less than 1 percent)
    • Five percent of the stories discussed genetic or biological causes
    • Most stories dealt with environmental causes (10 percent), including trauma and job stress
    • Stories about genetic causes were most frequently found in the health section (14 of 160
      stories, or 9 percent)
    • Stories about environmental causes were frequently seen in the lifestyle section (31 of
      332 stories, or 9 percent) and the health section (eight of 332 stories, or 2 percent)
  • Twenty-six percent of stories were related to treatment and recovery. Most were about biological treatments (13 percent) and psychosocial treatments (14 percent). In terms of frequency, most stories about research and treatment were found in the health section of newspapers. Biological treatments were also prominently discussed in the front section and, interestingly, in the business section.
  • Stories that could support patients with mental illness were twenty percent of all articles. The single largest theme was shortage of resources; these themes were most prevalent in editorials and opinion pieces. Five percent of stories were related to poor quality of treatment. Themes on housing and homelessness were present in 6 percent of stories. Even though insurance parity is a prominent issue on the agenda for mental health advocacy, only 2 percent of articles dealt with this theme

All U.S. newspapers with daily circulation greater than 250,000 were selected for our study or in states without such large editions the largest newspaper was selected. All relevant stories (N=3,353) in large U.S. newspapers were identified and coded during six week long periods in 2002.

Why is it important?
The public is still being influenced with messages in newspapers about mental illness and dangerousness mostly on the front page.

However, when these numbers are considered in terms of base rates, one finds mental illness to be a poorer predictor of violence than demographic variables, such as age, gender, and race or ethnicity……Yet the public is more likely to view people with mental illness as dangerous

Instead of focusing on personal or parental blame, stories seemed to focus on biological or mostly environmental causes, while in research the brain has become the focus of recent interest and development especially neuroscience. Treatment and recovery are also an important topic in articles in newspapers.

This research only used a search in large newspapers. The selection of stories was than judged with only four themes.

Nevertheless stories about mental illness and dangerousness and crime are waning compared to previous research. Focus has shifted from personal and parental blame to genetic and environmental causes which is a good thing. This kind of research has to be repeated in the near future do discover trends of stories on mental illness in mass media.

Next post in this series will be on Wednesday August 13th about A Portrait of Depression in the Mass Media, Gender Influences.
Patrick W. Corrigan, Psy.D., Amy C. Watson, Ph.D., Gabriela Gracia, B.A., B.S., Natalie Slopen, A.M., Kenneth Rasinski, Ph.D., Laura L. Hall, Ph.D. (2005). Newspaper Stories as
Measures of Structural Stigma Psychiatric Services, 56 (5), 551-556 DOI: 15872163