Notes from the Field: Words, Images Count in Mental Health Reporting

Karen Ladley headshot

Karen Ladley is senior associate director for the Carter Center’s Mental Health Program.

I have three messages for journalists writing about mental health: Words matter. Images matter. You matter.

I hope that’s what people reading the Carter Center’s new guide to reporting on mental health absorb and then implement in their work. We believe this guide will help journalists — and really anyone writing about mental health — approach the topic of mental health with sensitivity.

First, the language we use when talking about mental health is so important. We need to change from using stigmatizing language to person-first language. This humanizes discussions of mental illness by placing the focus on people, not their conditions. For example, instead of calling someone a “schizophrenic,” the person should be referred to a “person with schizophrenia.” It’s a subtle change that makes a world of difference.

Next, journalists and editors need to know that images matter. If stories on mental health only show people sitting alone with their heads in their hands, readers become desensitized to what depression and anxiety look like. Showing diverse images helps readers understand that mental illnesses can affect lots of people in lots of situations.

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The Carter Center has released a guide to help journalists who report on mental health issues.

Finally, I hope the guide reminds journalists that their own self-care is important. We’re losing journalists out in the field. Sometimes their medium is going out of business — like newspapers — but we’re also losing journalists because the work is so hard and it takes such a toll. They may not have support structures, and some don’t have insurance.

The release of this short booklet comes at a time when coverage of mental health is skyrocketing. We hope this guide helps journalists understand how to be responsible in their storytelling and aware of the impact they can have both negatively and positively regarding stigma.

In addition to being mindful with words and images, we discuss other pillars of good reporting, such as high-quality sources and useful statistics.

Finally, we ask journalists to consider the perspectives of people with lived experience. Yes, an expert opinion is important, but the point of view of someone living with a mental illness is invaluable.

Related Resources

Carter Center Journalism Resource Guide on Mental Health Reporting (PDF)