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Media Guidelines

The Media play a very large part in portrayals and reporting of Autism and Mental Health conditions, with the biggest audiences and readerships, it is your duty to make sure you are educating and influencing the public in the right way to ensure the awareness being raised is appropriate, accurate and informative.

 

When the media get it right, you can be a tremendous tool in raising awareness, challenging the stigmas and attitudes aswell as helping to dispel myths and misconceptions which cause so much worry, concern and challenges in the Autism and the Mental health communities. You can give people of all ages and experiences with Mental Health and or Autism a platform to have their voice heard and offer insight to the public about health problems they may know very little or have not experienced before.

However, it is a great concern that journalism and programme-making can overplay the risk of violence, promote fear and mistrust and widen the gap of understanding about life with Autism and Mental Health issues.

We want to ensure that both factual and fictional portrayals of people with Autism and Mental Health problems that appear in the media are accurate. At AMHA we’ve put together a range of guidance and advice for journalists and programme makers to help you get things right.

Our Spokesperson

Our Ceo and Founder of AMHA and The Neurodiversity Foundation, Sonny Hawkins is available for media interviews about our work, breaking news stories and related issues to do with changing how we all think and act about Autism and Mental Health. Sonny can also provide further information on his own story for articles, blogs and journalism students on request aswell as share contacts within Buckinghamshire charities, family centres and services upon request for stories relating to Autism specific topics and news items. 

Contact info for Sonny Hawkins: info@amha.org.uk

We can also put journalists and programme-makers in touch with a range of case studies including some of our selected contributors who are available for interview at request. 

Current contributors

think about language used

 

Obviously, just like any other health condition or sensitive topic, its essential you don't stigmatise, inaccurately depict or offend those whose story your sharing, or condition your including as part of a program, by doing so can alienate and cause huge upset within that community or those who suffer with said condition. 

 

Mental Health is no different to any other sensitive topic or health condition, it deserves care and respect, unfortunately it has been noticed in the media whether its a news item, article/newspaper, tv show or film, quite often offensive language is used to represent or describe both mental health and autism. Part of removing the stigma around Autism and mental health is to tackle the language that is used to describe sufferers, conditions or stories and ensure the story is being told with respect, without offending and stigmatising those on the spectrum or with mental health.  

 

Here are the most common, as well as some alternative suggestions.

Do not use:

  • ‘a psycho’ or ‘a schizo’

  • ‘a schizophrenic’ or ‘a depressive’

  • ‘lunatic’ ‘nutter’ 'unhinged' 'maniac' 'mad'

  • ‘the mentally ill’, ‘a person suffering from’ ‘a sufferer’, a ‘victim’ or ‘the afflicted’

  • 'prisoners’ or ‘inmates’ (in a psychiatric hospital)

  • ‘released’ (from a hospital)

  • 'happy pills'

  • 'Aspergers, a mild form of Autism'

  • 'Spergers'

  • 'Autisticy'


Try these alternatives: 

  • ‘a person who has experienced psychosis’ or 'a person who has schizophrenia'

  • someone who ‘has a diagnosis of’ is ‘currently experiencing' or ‘is being treated for…

  • ‘a person with a mental health problem’

  • ‘mental health patients’ or ‘people with mental health problems’

  • ‘patients’, ‘service users’ or clients

  • ‘discharged’

  • ‘antidepressants', 'medication' or 'prescription drugs'

  • Other common mistakes

  • 'schizophrenic’ or 'bipolar' should not be used to mean ‘two minds’ or a ‘split personality’ or a 'personality disorder'.

  • somebody who is angry is not ‘psychotic’

  • a person who is down or unhappy is not the same as someone experiencing clinical depression

  • 'Aspergers, high functioning Autism'

  • 'An adult with Autism' or 'An adult on the Autistic Spectrum'

  • 'An Autistic Person' or 'Person with Autism'

Use of imagery

 

The wrong image used in stories can be as equally damaging as the words spoken or the headlines used. It has been observed by many of the big Mental Health and Autism charities that the images accompanying stories around Autism and Mental Health are from generic stock libraries, often showing people isolated, angry, upset and in distress. People with Autism and or Mental health problems come from all walks of life, with a diverse variety of background, lifestyles, religions, ethnicity and will have much more going on than simply their mental health problems.

Even more concerning are the images commonly taken from tv and films that perpetuate outdated stereotypes of Autism and Mental illness, images showing people in distress can actually increase the stigma and discrimination faced by people with Mental Health problems and increases the stereotype of people ‘going crazy’. Some images can be very triggering to those with certain Mental Health conditions or behaviors. 

It's very disappointing when strong stories with great content and potentially educational value can be weakened by the use of an inappropriate image.

  • Most people with Mental Health problems will never be in-patients because of their condition, so using shots of a hospital ward can be misleading

  • In the same way you may show a range of people or crowd shots to illustrate a story about the general population, you can do the same with a story around mental illness, after all 1 in 4 of us has a Mental Health problem

  • Many people who have mental health problems don’t take medication so showing pills is not always appropriate or accurate

  • If you are using a photo or footage of a case study then ensure that they understand how it will be used. Check they are prepared to be identified in the story this way.

  • Avoid using any images that could be considered ‘triggering’ for people. Images that show how people self harm may lead to the imitation of self-harming behaviour by other people at risk. The Samaritans have some great media guidelines that deal specifically with suicide and self harm.

  • Using stills from films such as 'Psycho', 'The Shining' or 'One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest' to illustrate mental health problems is inaccurate and may contribute to outdated stereotypes of 'mad, bad & dangerous'

Documentaries

 

If you are a programme maker, please, please do you research and reach out to the many wonderful organisations, charities, aswell as the Autism and Mental Health advocates who can easily be found online and on Twitter. Dont just go to the obvious well publicised larger organisations or advocates who may appear in the news or in newspapers, you will be missing out on the amazing stories and incredible effort going on right now from the two communities. The best stories will be from charities on the ground right now like family centres suchas Clearly Speaking, amazing podcasters like Goodness Chick.  

 

Tip: Many use hashtags suchas #Actuallyautistic #mentalhealthawareness #endthesilence.

 

Both communities of Autism and Mental Health have an amazingly diverse population, with many using the word Neurodiversity as the acceptance of difference and variety is really embarrassed.    

  • Find out more information about Mental Health conditions, aswell as the stigma and discrimination. 

  • Portray a wider variety of people, not just rich white people or middle class americans etc.. Those of Black ethnicity, or from an eastern country, or perhaps a different religion, social standing etc do not get the attention they deserve

  • Request help from professionals and those with the conditions your covering. Ask advice from real people struggling everyday. Twitter is the place to talk about Mental Health and Autism right now. 

  • Get your facts or scripts checked. What takes us smaller organisations years to raise awareness, can be undone with one episode of a documentary, so please think, double check and get advice before you broadcast stories about Mental Health and Autism

  • Use sites like AMHA.org.uk, Themighty.com who are here and happy to share stories, put you in touch with bloggers, artists etc... 

 

So many documentaries only show one type of Mental Health or represent only a certain type of person with Autism. Be different and reach out as so many want to share their story but can't due to lack of opportunity. 


If you are looking for inspiration for a documentary then why not take a look at our contributors who share their stories from all over the world. 

Soaps and drama

 

Featuring characters with mental health problems in soaps and dramas can have a positive impact on people recognising illness or seeking help, however getting it wrong may have a really negative effect and can re-inforce stereotypes of ‘mad, bad and dangerous’

In 2014, Time to Change worked with Glasgow Media Group to review three months of TV drama, in order to identify themes in the way that mental health problems were being portrayed. Time to Change also surveyed the public about the impact that mental health storylines had on them, and sought insights from big names in the industry. On November 11th 2014, Time to Change produced the report 'Making a Drama Out of a Crisis', which found:

  • encouraging signs that mental health depictions had become more positive. More storylines had attempted to ‘normalise’ mental health problems and fewer characters with mental health problems were portrayed as violent.

  • the growth of a relatively new type of narrative, focusing on the damaging stigma a character with a mental health problem faces.

  • the existence of some alternative stereotypes and over-simplifications, for example, about tragic victims and medication.  

  • over half of the survey's respondents who recalled seeing a character with mental health problems on TV said that this had helped to improve their understanding of such problems.

  • among all those respondents who had personally experienced a mental health problem, a quarter said that seeing a character with similar issues encouraged them to seek professional help.

Top Tips to make it interesting

Creating a character or a storyline around mental health doesn't have to be either dull or explosive.

With one in four of us experiencing mental health problems it is a fact of life for many viewers and getting it wrong risks annoying or alienating much of your audience. It can be challenging but it can also be dramatic and interesting, without having to resort to stereotypes such as 'the mad axeman'. 

  • to make a charactor plausible and accurate, speak to as many people who have mental health problems as possible. They are the best consultants available and most want to see accuracy on screen 

  • listen to people's stories and experiences. Some scriptwriters have written entire storylines about mental health problems based on one conversation

  • think about your camera shots. Certain mental health conditions can lead people to feel isolated or to experience altered reality. This can be reflected through close up shots, POV shots or hand held

  • give the storyline enough time to develop. It is common that symptoms of mental health problems will manifest over a period of time and build in intensity, rather than develop and explode in the space of one episode

  • think about how other characters react? Stigma and discrimination can be as bad as the mental health problem itself for many people. Can you show any empathy from others?

  • get expert advice from mental health charities and experts to ensure that the symptoms you are showing on screen are relevant and realistic

  • think of your dramatic climax carefully. Most people with mental health problems are not violent so it is unrealistic for a storyline to always end in violence or homicide

  • don't use a mental illness just to try and explain bad or strange behaviour.

Suicide and self harm

 

If you are tasked with reporting about suicide or self harm it is really important to do this responsibly as studies have shown that some reporting can lead to copycat behaviour. 

  • Focus on feelings, not behaviours. Try to report underlying issues or motivations behind the self-harm, as oppose to detailing the behaviour itself. Graphic descriptions can be used as tips by people who may be predisposed to self harming.

  • Don’t be explicit about methods. E.g. it may be okay to mention taking an overdose, but avoid detailing what substance was taken, how many tablets etc. This could be used as a tip by someone experiencing suicidal ideations.

  • Avoid coverage of self-harming behaviours by celebrities. It could glamorise or prompt imitation behaviour.

  • Remember the correct term is to ‘complete’ suicide, not ‘commit’. ‘Commit’ is used when describing criminality, and implies judgement or persecution.

  • Avoid phrases like ‘unsuccessful suicide attempt’. This attributes feelings of achievement or failure to taking one’s own life.

  • No images relating to self-injury should be used. This can be triggering and distressing for readers.

  • Avoid presenting the behaviour as an appropriate solution to the problems, as readers may interpret the behaviour as a positive coping strategy.

  • Avoid disclosing the contents of any suicide notes, past or present. Sometimes this may be used as guidance for a vulnerable person to justify their own suicide. We would also advise against reproducing final posts on social media for the same reason.

Samaritan's media guidelines for reporting suicide and self-harm

Violence

 

Over a third of the public think people with a mental health problem are likely to be violent – in fact people with severe mental illnesses are more likely to be victims, rather than perpetrators, of violent crime.

The Facts

  • The majority of violent crimes and homicides are committed by people who do not have mental health problems.

  • People with mental health problems are more dangerous to themselves than they are to others: 90 per cent of people who die through suicide in the UK are experiencing mental distress.

  • In 2009, the total population in England and Wales was just over 43 million. It is estimated that about one in six of the adult population will have a significant mental health problem at any one time (more than 7 million people). Given this number and the 50–70 cases of homicide a year involving people known to have a mental health problem at the time of the murder, clearly the statistics data do not support the sensationalist media coverage about the danger that people with mental health problems present to the community.

  • According to the British Crime Survey, almost half (47 per cent) of the victims of violent crimes believed that their offender was under the influence of alcohol and about 17 per cent believed that the offender was under the influence of drugs. Another survey suggested that about 30 per cent of victims believed that the offender attacked them because they were under the influence of drugs or alcohol. In contrast, only 1 per cent of victims believed that the violent incident happened because the offender had a mental illness.

  • Contrary to popular belief, the incidence of homicide committed by people diagnosed with mental health problems has stayed at a fairly constant level since the 1990s

  • Substance abuse appears to play a role: The prevalence of violence is higher among people who have symptoms of substance abuse (including discharged psychiatric patients and non-patients). 

Reporting stories featuring violence and mental health problems

  • Stick to the facts – don’t speculate about someone’s mental health being a factor unless the facts are clear

  • Consider including contextualising facts about how very few people with mental health problems are violent

  • Seek comment from a mental health charity such as Mind, NAS, or Rethink Mental Illness 

  • Speak to the perpetrator’s family – often they are victims too with compelling stories to tell

Autism

 

Coming Soon

Eating Disorders

 

We recommend caution when discussing Eating Disorders, one of the most misrepresented Mental Health Conditions. If you are covering the story of someone with an eating disorder, here are some tips to help you. 

  • Avoid numbers including calories, weight, BMI, and body measurements. Eating disorders can be competitive illnesses. Those who are experiencing eating disorders may compare their own numbers and strive to match or ‘beat’ others, seeing their numbers as a failure if they are not as low as someone else’s.

  • Avoid using degrading terms like, Fat, Obese or close up images of someones stomach in public which can be extremely distressing.

  • Don’t discuss food groups. Mentioning specific ‘good’ foods and ‘bad’ foods can be used as tips.

  • Avoid mentioning amounts eaten, as this can be seen as guidance on how to restrict food intake, and the ‘right’ amount of food to consume.

  • No images of emaciated body parts. Pictures of gaunt and skinny body parts can be used as inspiration or a target for others.

  • Focus on feelings, not behaviours. Again, detailing behaviour such as methods of purging can be interpreted as tip sharing by those vulnerable to disordered eating.

We recommend checking out the late Claire Greaves story as a case study as to how destructive Eating Disorders can be

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