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Public editor: A new standard set for reporting on mental health

The CBC has unveiled an excellent guide on reporting on mental health.

The Canadian Journalism Forum on Violence and Trauma has unveiled an excellent guide on reporting on mental health that offers great advice to all working journalists.

The guide is the result of its work with the CBC as a media partner, with help from the Mental Health Commission of Canada. It is the most thorough and well-explained advice for journalists that I have seen.

The guide offers advice on how to cover suicide, how to do interviews, how to deal with the legal issues and how journalists who can face very traumatic coverage at home and abroad can take care of themselves as well.

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It talks about the stigma of mental illness: "Stigma has no respect for facts. That, if nothing else, makes it our business as journalists to try to set the record straight."

The report notes that since 20 per cent of Canadians have a mental illness at any one time, likely so too do journalists, and most continue working without talking about it. Some do discuss this publicly and their personal stories are included in this multimedia report.

The guidelines also include an introduction by Globe and Mail health columnist André Picard, who has been a leader at and in The Globe and in the media in working toward both more open and more sensitive coverage of mental health issues.

Here is what he says: "So what is the role of journalists and editors in tackling the stigma that invariably comes along with these diagnoses? Is our role to sit back, observe and report dispassionately on this sad state of affairs, or to proactively set out to bring about social change? The short answer is: a bit of both. The single most influential change that the media can (and should) make is to start treating mental illnesses the way they do physical illnesses: With curiosity, compassion and a strong dose of righteous indignation when people are mistreated or wronged.

"Journalists should be as willing to write about depression as breast cancer, as dogged and thorough in the reporting of advances and setbacks, and as determined to seek out patients to illustrate their stories. They should be no more forgiving of long waits for a child to see a psychiatrist than they are of long waits for grandmothers needing hip replacements. They should cover suicides the same way they cover murders, seeking to find answers about the causes, while mourning the dead, flaws and all," he wrote.

Previously I have written about another set of guidelines written by mental health advocates and Associated Press managing editors in the United States.

That report also offers excellent advice, especially on suicide coverage, including not using the word "commit" in reference to a suicide, reporting on suicide as a public health issue and seeking advice from suicide prevention experts.

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This report above by the CBC and the Canadian Journalism Forum on Violence and Trauma is far more comprehensive and sets a new standard.

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About the Author
Public Editor

Sylvia Stead has been a reporter and editor at the Globe since 1975, after graduating from the University of Western Ontario in Journalism with a minor in Political Science. She won the Board of Governors Award there in 1974. As a reporter, Sylvia covered courts, education and Queen's Park. More

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