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Anti-stigma project works to improve mental health reporting

Due to widespread stigma, many members of the public mistakenly associate mental illness with violence. However, "you would be in more danger going to a bar for drinks than encountering someone with severe mental illness," said Dr. Peter Roy-Byrne, Chief of Psychiatry at Harborview Medical Center, at a press briefing on public mental health held Aug. 2 at the UW Communications Building.


Jennifer Stuber

Mental illness alone rarely triggers violence. In fact, people with mental illnesses are more likely to be victims than perpetrators, according to Jennifer Stuber, head of the Washington State Coalition to Improve Mental Health Reporting, which presented the panel of mental health experts as part of its initiative to provide the news media with accurate information in order to eradicate stigma about mental illness.

Roy-Byrne cited statistics showing that one of every four people has some form of broad-spectrum mental disorder and that 3 to 5 percent of the population have chronic and persistent disorders that limit their abilities. With the right treatment and support, most people can recover significantly, the panelists told the packed room of media professionals and journalism students.

The press event’s venue reflected the close ties between the Communication Department and Stuber, an assistant professor in the UW School of Social Work who founded the coalition with funding from the Washington State Mental Health Transformation Grant.

The collaboration began several years ago, when Stuber took David Domke’s graduate course in content analysis. She and Communication doctoral student Peg Achterman went on to analyze mental health coverage by eight Washington dailies over a 10-year period.

Their findings, like those of other published studies, showed that more than half the stories about mental illness mentioned crime or violence, and that comparatively few reported on treatment, prevention or recovery. Research shows that media’s disproportionate emphasis on the rare cases of violence contributes to stigmatization and misunderstanding of mental illness, which in turn leads to discrimination and reluctance to seek treatment.

To help address the problem, Stuber turned again to the Communication Department and recruited recent doctoral grad Sue Lockett John to help with a statewide outreach to journalists and members of the mental health community. Other members of the action team included Social Work research assistant Ruby Godina, Rena Shawver of the governor’s office, and Melanie Green, mental-health recovery coordinator for the Clark County Regional Support Network, who also spoke at the press briefing from her personal experience with mental illness and shared her frustrations with how community and media stigma can hinder the recovery process.

For more than a year, the small action team monitored newspaper content, identified expert news sources, and traveled the state to meet with journalists and teach mental health community members how to respond to and initiate media coverage. The resultant coalition now numbers more than 250 community members who are connected by a listserv that alerts them to significant events and news stories.

More than 40 print and radio news stories met its standards for consideration for the first annual Washington State Mental Health Reporting Journalism Award, which was awarded in June to Scott Hewitt of the Vancouver Columbian. Journalism and ethics professor Roger Simpson served on the judging committee that selected three finalists for online voting by coalition members.

Encouraged by the success of this multifaceted pilot initiative, Stuber is working with Domke and other Communication faculty and staff to expand the research and action components in order to promote change nationwide. The goal is “a cultural sea change in how people, especially journalists and people with psychiatric disabilities, understand and communicate mental health,” says Domke.

To learn more about mental health reporting visit: Video of the Aug. 2 media briefing on public mental health is posted under New Features on the home page.

Kat Salazar is a student in the University of Washington Department of Communication News Laboratory. Sue Lockett John is a three-time Communication alum who earned her doctorate in 2008.