The media has come a long way in reporting mental health issues. But there is still some way to go, reports Sophie Goodchild


hen The Sun newspaper splashed with the headline “Bonkers Bruno Locked Up” in September 2003, it never expected such an outcry. Editor Rebekah Wade (now Brooks) had seen nothing wrong in labelling former

world heavyweight boxing champion Frank Bruno this way after he was taken to a psychiatric hospital. Angry readers were soon swamping the paper with calls. Some threatened to boycott the paper, and charities branded its coverage ‘insensitive’. Later editions were changed and the next day Wade hastily launched a fund to tackle mental illness. The episode gives a textbook example of how parts of the media portrayed mental illness back then. At best, editors dismissed stories about depression as lacking reader appeal. At worst, coverage was biased towards the public needing protection from ‘nutters’, ‘psychos’ and ‘maniacs’. Sue Baker OBE, former head of media for charity Mind, remembers the focus on “people in asylums wearing straitjackets” and the constant struggle to get sympathetic reporting. “The argument from some editors was ‘It’s our job to reflect what our readers think. It’s your job to educate them.’ It was and still is a cop-out.” Figures from Time to Change, the anti-stigma campaign that

Baker set up with charities Mind and Rethink Mental Illness, suggest that newspaper reporting of mental illness is improving. In 2016, for the first time since Time to Change began monitoring stories in 2008, more articles with a sympathetic angle than those that reinforced stigma were published. However, stereotypes persist, especially around schizophrenia – the only mental illness more likely to be in a negative than a sympathetic story. Says Baker: “You don’t see enough coverage of real people living with this condition like mums or the school lollipop man – articles that show the human side and the fact it can affect anyone. There’s still a misconception that you’re far more likely to be dangerous if you have schizophrenia, despite the vast majority of people not having hurt a soul.” As someone diagnosed with bipolar schizoaffective disorder,

writer Giles Addison says negative stories make matters ‘so much tougher’. “Having a mental illness is a very isolating experience anyway,” he says. “How it is invariably portrayed in the media only increases this, especially with schizophrenia. It is a prejudice I must face every single day.” Alastair Campbell, an ex-Mirror journalist and former Downing Street director of communications, agrees work is

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needed to shift papers away from linking severe mental illness with violence. “Papers like to make an impact and, if there’s a court case where the defendant says Jesus told them to do this, then you can’t expect a reporter to ignore the story,” says Campbell, a Time to Change ambassador. “But papers … should be ensuring coverage is proportionate, balanced and in context.” When Campbell went public about his experience of depression, newspapers were overwhelmingly sympathetic. There was a time, he says, when you ‘couldn’t get stories about mental illness in the paper’ but, when his brother Donald died last year, Campbell was heartened that the focus was on him as a University of Glasgow piper, rather than as a person with schizophrenia. “It was an opportunity to get across the fact that he had a life and a career as well as a

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