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Sunday, 17 July 2011

Discussing things openly raises awareness but it can also highlight gaps, and so is doubly useful. 'Awareness' is an oft-used word and when matched with 'raising' or 'lowering' refers to how much people in the community think about something. I've been participating in the #ruralmh hashtag on Twitter a fair bit of late because it is available and interesting. People participate. Things are discussed. The awareness of the participants is raised. As for the gap, it's obvious to anyone who closely follows what passes for reporting on mental health and suicide in the nation's newspapers. While there are over 5 people who kill themselves every day the number of news stories about suicide is very small indeed.

On a related note, the reporting of mental health is also pretty bad, although more prevalent than for suicide. You might read about a man tasered by police so many times that he suffers a heart attack, which can be sort of like suicide by proxy - for the man was most likely experiencing an 'episode'. Psychotic episodes are common. You may not know from looking at people as they walk down the street but it's more than likely that one of them is experiencing heightened anxiety brought on by - a number of reasons. People don't often show the severity of their anxiety. It may only manifest itself in a higher-than-normal pulse or breathing rate. It may be that a person you are talking to suddenly stands up from their seat, makes an excuse, and leaves the party. When someone kills someone else due to an episodic attack we hear about it, likewise when a person has to be restrained due to a psychotic episode and as a result of poor handling by the people doing the restraint, dies - we hear about it. A man with a knife on the street gets reported.

What doesn't get reported in these cases, as in the rare cases of suicide that get reported, is the backstory. And this is the real story. The emotional rollercoaster leading up to the catastrophic final act - the overdose of sleeping pills, the kitchen knife brandished on a public street - is manifestly out of view. We never know what happened to bring events to pass.

Mindframe is a government-funded initiative that aims to assist the media, among others, to better report on mental health issues. Their website gives police, for example, tips on how to talk with the media.

Among the things recommended is referring journalists to the police media unit. There are guidelines as to language that should be avoided, words to use in preference to others, and the types of facts to relay to the media. These are worthy points to start from but until the media begin to report more frequently they're not going to help an awful lot. In fact, most coppers will anyway refer you to the media unit due to internal guidelines that control (very tightly in my experience) not just what can be said but who can say it.

Journalists are under the impression, moreover, that they should not report on suicide. When I was starting out as a freelance journo I had the opportunity on one occasion to talk with a reporter from a major metropolitan tabloid. "We don't report on suicides," he told me. And I've since paid attention to such reporting, finding it to be true. Even if a journalist were to go to the police they would likely find themselves blocked from access to the type of information their editors would want to read. And they would move on - the relentless pressure to produce stories on a daily basis means that you can't expend resources as lavishly on reporting mental health and suicide as the topic deserves. There is a huge unmet demand for stories on these issues but the police are renowned for the amount of control they exercise over messages aimed at the media, reporters are hamstrung by tight deadlines, and the learned bias is to say nothing. So the inherent dynamics of the system of information production mean that there will be less revealed than is necessary.

What is the answer? Mindframe publishes statistics showing how many briefings have been carried out in a given timeframe. There are help sheets for the police that can be downloaded to a mobile phone. There are discussions with the media and joint projects that surface occasionally. But until a better routine is established to drive the overall performance of mental health and suicide reporting there will not be an increase in public awareness. I suggest that editors establish a regular mental health beat in their newsrooms that will enable the reporter to spend the time necessary to achieve a useful and rounded story whenever there is an opportunity to report. Police should be more forthcoming with information that will be useful to the media - and hence to the public. And the editors themselves should think about their role in the public sphere and how their actions on a daily basis can influence community perceptions so as to reduce the power of stigma, for example, or increase the number of times a friend asks, 'Are you OK?'

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