Sticks and stones

One of the leaflets I picked up, amongst the biros and the mousemats at Community Care Live event last week, was a publication by SHIFT – an organisation that I’d never heard of until last week.

But they publish what I thought was an interesting guide for journalists and editors reporting Mental Health and Suicide in mainstream and local press. It’s an interesting publication that aims to educate journalists responsible for writing and presenting news with some facts and figures about mental illness and violence in general and warnings about not linking the two without considerable thought.

There were a couple of their recommendations for good practice that I thought would be interesting to highlight

  • ‘Avoid using offensive expressions like ‘psycho’, ‘schizo’ and ‘nutter’. They perpetuate the stereotypical ideas associating people with mental health problems with violence and unpredictability’
  • ‘Stick to the facts – don’t speculate about someone’s mental health being a factor unless the facts are clear’.

I suppose those points seem obvious or at least they do to me, but I guess I’m as far from the target audience as it’s possible to get.

There is another section about suicide and the reporting of it which is particularly pertinent (and possibly a reason the guide was produced) following the spate of suicides in Wales with the finger being pointed in some circles to irresponsible reporting exacerbating the problem. Mental Patient About Town highlights the debate about the press coverage around these incidents which one hopes will lead to more attention being paid to language and responsibility of media forms.

The Guidelines for the Press include

  • Avoid sensational headlines or language that can glorify or romanticise the act of suicide.
  • Suicide was decriminalised in 1961, so it is inaccurate to use the term ‘commit suicide’.
  • Suicide is complex. People decide to take their own lives for many different reasons. It is misleading to suggest a simple cause and effect explanation.

The guidelines of course, make logical sense. The publication makes interesting reading as a non-journalist and instils some kind of hope that its messages will get to the intended recipients. The media is such a powerful force in popular culture that the message it carries can be responsible for a ‘general mood’ and attitude. I was also aware that these expressions linger in day-to-day speech and possibly it is a way that the media can influence how perceptions are formed.

One of the things that annoys me sometimes is when people laughingly talk about political correctness and use it as an excuse to use pejorative language as if, by objecting one is ‘making a fuss’, but language and especially day to day language is how ideas are carried, developed and formed. Now, I’m not one to change manholes to personholes but those kinds of arguments are, I believe, an attempt to ridicule the real issues and marginalise people who do feel offended by some of the terms in common parlance.

So regardless of the old rhyme about sticks and stones that we (or I, at least) recited as children, I strongly believe that names do hurt and can cause immense damage.

When more journalists find different ways to excite and interest the public, it can, does and will lead to changes in attitude and language and greater sensitivity to and understanding of  mental health issues in the general populace.

2 thoughts on “Sticks and stones

  1. How interesting. It had never occurred to me that the phrase “to commit suicide” derived from “to commit a crime”. If “commit” is no longer appropriate, what verb should be used?

  2. I haven’t thought of it either to be honest which is one of the reasons I thought it was interesting – it makes sense when you think about it, it’s just that language becomes so entrenched you don’t always think of that!. The alternatives offered by the pamphlet are ‘took his own life’, ‘die by suicide’ or ‘complete suicide’.

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