Reporting on mental health: how to prevent, not increase, stigma and discrimination on mental health

Written by Faith Nassozi, United for Global Mental Health

United for Global Mental Health is working with journalists and journalist networks around the world to encourage responsible reporting on mental health. This article provides background on this issue, suggested reading and details of groups that provide support and advice.

Stigma and discrimination against people with mental health conditions is prevalent across societies and cultures. A September 2023 USAID policy brief titled “Mental Health Stigma and Discrimination” highlights that globally, stigma significantly impacts individuals with mental health difficulties. It further asserts that stigma can result in stereotypes, prejudice towards, and mistreatment of affected persons. 

Lack of understanding and education about mental health issues is one of the key drivers of stigma and discrimination. The media can serve as a powerful vehicle for increasing awareness and understanding of mental health conditions and normalising them. Yet, some sections of the media perpetuate mental health stigma and discrimination through depictions of affected persons as violent, unstable, or unpredictable, fueling harmful stereotypes.

Our work as journalists on mental health stigma and discrimination is very sensitive because it shapes public reception and attitudes.  Journalism transmits ways of thinking and viewing the world, influencing beliefs and opinions; therefore, responsible reporting can reduce mental health stigma by promoting empathy, however, it can also cause harm if not handled carefully, especially where sensationalised reporting on suicide leads to copy cat effects.” Asma Zribi – Tunisian journalist and a collaborator with the Carthage Health Association.

The 2022 Lancet  Commission report on ending stigma and discrimination in mental health revealed that stigma and discrimination against people with mental health conditions in the media is a ‘global human rights crisis. According to the study, 70% of people with mental health conditions reported that the media perpetuated stigma and discrimination through the use of stigmatising language and simplistically or inaccurately linking mental health conditions with violence. This bars them from reaching their full potential, harms their mental health further, and, at worst, contributes to suicidal behaviour. 

Stigma and discrimination is often found to be worse than the condition itself, and derogatory terms encourage further discrimination and, more importantly, deny human rights. PWLE should play a leading role in anti-stigma initiatives.” Charlene Sunkel CEO Global Mental Health Peer Network and Co-Chair of the Lancet Commission on Ending Stigma and Discrimination in Mental Health

The World Health Organization (WHO) media resource on reporting on suicide prevention also highlights that vulnerable individuals are at risk of engaging in imitative behaviour following media reports of suicide, particularly if the coverage is extensive, prominent, sensational, or explicitly describes the method of suicide. and condones or repeats widely held myths about suicide. 

“By following the recommendations in the WHO media resource, journalists can play a vital role in suicide prevention, reducing stigma, fostering supportive and informed public discourse, and promoting suicide prevention efforts globally.” Ben Adams – Mental Health Specialist, WHO.

The media, however, has the power to challenge stereotypes and normalise mental health conditions through reporting that creates greater societal awareness and support. According to the USAID brief, encouraging media outlets (including social media) to present accurate, positive, and sensitive portrayals of mental health issues can serve to challenge negative stereotypes and promote a more positive image of people with mental health conditions. Further, responsible reporting may help to educate the public about suicide and its prevention, encourage those at risk of suicide to take alternative actions, and inspire a more open and hopeful dialogue about mental health/illness in general. 

The 2024 Lancet article that explores the perspectives of people with lived experience (PWLE) emphasises that PWLE should be given meaningful opportunities to participate in efforts to reduce stigma and discrimination. The media needs to acknowledge and value their experiential expertise.

“We must involve PWLE in the discussion because they bring authenticity, empathy, and insights into the discussion and should be part of collective advocacy efforts to combat stigma and discrimination. Media should involve them by telling their stories because storytelling is a great tool to highlight challenges and coping strategies.” Ifeanyi Chukwudi

Senior Programme Manager Center for Journalism Innovation and Development. 

United for Global Mental Health (UnitedGMH), working together with the Global Mental Health Peer Network, developed a media manifesto to end mental health stigma and discrimination 

UnitedGMH has also conducted several media roundtable table discussions with journalists that have provided a platform to discuss the media’s role in fighting mental health-related stigma and discrimination and how the media can report on suicide prevention. The most recent session held on May 15, during the mental health awareness week, attracted journalists from various African countries as well as journalist’s networks including the Center for Journalism Innovation and Development, the Carthage Health Association, and the Carter Center. The participants expressed a strong interest in working together to combat mental health stigma and discrimination and to provide support to journalists as they report on mental health.

“The news cyclone means journalists move from one breaking story to the next; therefore, it’s difficult for journalists to have time to process the horrific stories they have seen since they are on the front lines of some very difficult stories. The South Africa National Editors Forums for Journalism Wellness and Safety Committee (SANEF) and the South African Depression and Anxiety Group (SADAG) have formulated toolkits for journalists. They have also conducted sessions to talk about journalist’s roles and responsibilities, as well as what it means for a journalist to report on these stories and be expected by the editors to move on to another story or to be well. We also encourage editors to understand their teams and give them support when they need it. We have to report ethically and responsibly, and there has to be consistent training.” Katy Katapodis – news director, journalist, editor, and chair of SANEF. 

Join the Global Mental Health Action Network’s Communication Working Group for more information and continued engagement. 

Recommended resources

  1. Preventing Suicide a resource for media professionals developed by WHO 
  2. Journalism resource guide on mental health reporting, developed by the Carter Center 
  3. The media manifesto developed by UnitedGMH and GMHPN
  4. The mental health reporting toolkit by CJID
  5. Reporting on Suicide by Reporting on Suicide


Quotes included in the article are from panellists during the African Media Roundtable discussion.