Why mental health media coverage needs to look past ‘spectacular and notorious’


Mental health has long been a topic that’s caught the public attention.

OPINION: “If you were to be crass, you could say there is a bit of a flavour of the month about it,” former Health Minister David Caygill says about mental health, during a conversation in a Christchurch cafe.

It might sound crass, but it’s true. The shortfalls of our mental health system are a constant topic of discussion at the dinner table, in the House, and in the media. Headlines claiming the system is “broken” or “on a knife edge” are frequent, and hard to ignore.

You don’t have to look much further to find a story about a mental health advocate calling for an independent review, or a grieving family member whose child killed themselves while in the care of services. This is part of the media’s role; exposing failings and holding those responsible to account. On the surface, it can seem like a straightforward path to do better by some of society’s most vulnerable.

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However, it’s relatively easy to point fingers and blame people in power (of course, there are standards which must be maintained). But it’s harder to look in the mirror and ask ourselves if we’re holding up our end of the bargain.

It seems obvious — take care when reporting on sensitive subjects that involve vulnerable people. Journalists and editors know this, but daily pressures or lack of column inches sometimes mean we don’t spend the time gathering all the context and balance. Stories of recovery are often lost. The problem is, when not handled with due care, these reports have the potential to cause further harm.

For the past six months, we’ve been travelling the country, interviewing those whose lives have intertwined with mental health services, and investigating what needs to change both in terms of service delivery and, more importantly, societal attitudes. As part of our storytelling process, we talked to people from all areas of mental health — consumers, service providers, family members, academics, policy makers, politicians, even one chaplain.

Former Health Minister David Caygill says mental health is the "flavour of the month".


Former Health Minister David Caygill says mental health is the “flavour of the month”.

And many weren’t shy in telling us how the media has played a role in perpetuating the stigma surrounding the subject. At times, it felt like a telling-off. District health board heads described media reports as “negative and simplistic”.

“Society has made us the default, and to be honest the media has made us the default,” said Derek Wright, Waikato DHB director of mental health and addictions.

“We commonly end up feeling responsible, and society sees us as being responsible, for responding largely to all the kind of ills and woes of the world,” one psychiatrist said.

Headlines from 1995 show a similar groundswell of concern surrounding the topic.


Headlines from 1995 show a similar groundswell of concern surrounding the topic.

He and others emphasised the importance of acceptance in recovery and, on the flip side, the damage done by stigma and self-stigma  — that internalised perception that erodes self-esteem and self-efficacy.

Counties Manukau DHB director of mental health and addiction services Peter Watson told us his workforce issues were exacerbated by the negative perceptions and coverage of mental health. They can get the capital, he said, but they can’t find the staff. Who wants to work in an area that’s constantly referred to as under-resourced, under-paid, and over-stretched?

Brad Strong, Watson’s counterpart at Southern DHB, echoed his thoughts: “There’s a reputation out there that the system’s broken, that people aren’t going to get the help they need, that it’s going to be an invitation to abuse. Fill in the blank, I’ve heard it.”

Waikato's executive director mental health and addiction, Derek Wright.


Waikato’s executive director mental health and addiction, Derek Wright.

Perhaps more concerningly, that reputation can also put people off seeking help when they need it.

“If you think no-one’s there, you’re not going to speak out when you need it,” Changing Minds chief executive Taimi Allan said.

So, does raising awareness of the shortfalls within the mental health system inadvertently lead to further issues? And is the media obligated to consider this in coverage?

Mental health is an important issue and the media has a duty to lead the discussion; this isn’t a plea for journalists to stop covering an area that affects the lives of all New Zealanders. It’s common for reporters taking on a complex problem, such as mental health, to get blamed for not fully understanding it, even though it’s impossible to know everything up front.

But because of the potential damage, we’ve got to work a little hard for our dinner. It’s not good enough to slap a, “Broken system, says X”, headline on a story, and walk away. These stories need to have balance, context, and, sometimes, a message of hope — not just focus on the spectacular and notorious.

Ministry of Health director of mental health and addiction services John Crawshaw used one word to sum up his feelings towards media coverage of the area: ambivalent.

While some coverage is harmful, he says he’s also seen the positive effect of responsible coverage that highlights how to tackle the issue, rather than just repeating we have a problem.

It’s time the media takes a step back, stops listening to those yelling the loudest, and looks for the rest of our mental health story.

Reporters Katie Kenny and Laura Walters spent six months travelling the country, interviewing those whose lives have intertwined with mental health services, and investigating what needs to change. The result was Through the Maze: Our mental health journey, a project funded by the Frozen Funds Charitable Trust, through the Mental Health Foundation. Explore their full report here.


Lifeline (open 24/7) – 0800 543 354

Depression Helpline (open 24/7) – 0800 111 757

Healthline (open 24/7) – 0800 611 116

Samaritans (open 24/7) – 0800 726 666

Suicide Crisis Helpline (open 24/7) – 0508 828 865 (0508 TAUTOKO). This is a service for people who may be thinking about suicide, or those who are concerned about family or friends.

Youthline (open 24/7) – 0800 376 633. You can also text 234 for free between 8am and midnight, or email talk@youthline.co.nz

0800 WHATSUP children’s helpline – phone 0800 9428 787 between 1pm and 10pm on weekdays and from 3pm to 10pm on weekends. Online chat is available from 7pm to 10pm every day at www.whatsup.co.nz.

Kidsline (open 24/7) – 0800 543 754. This service is for children aged 5 to 18. Those who ring between 4pm and 9pm on weekdays will speak to a Kidsline buddy. These are specially trained teenage telephone counsellors.

Your local Rural Support Trust – 0800 787 254 (0800 RURAL HELP)

Alcohol Drug Helpline (open 24/7) – 0800 787 797. You can also text 8691 for free.

For further information, contact the Mental Health Foundation’s free Resource and Information Service (09 623 4812).

 – Stuff

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