The suicides of American fashion designer Kate Spade and celebrity chef Anthony Bourdain were widely reported across the UK and US media, but many readers and journalists alike were quick to call out how their deaths were irresponsibly covered by some publishers.
Although many organisations such as Poynter, the World Health Organisation and the BBC Academy provide guidelines on how to responsibly report on mental illness and suicide, it seems not everybody gets it right.
Both the Daily Mail UK and New York Times were criticised on Twitter for their reportage which, some said, broke guidelines on the Independent Press Standards Organisation. Ipso rules that in taking care to prevent simulative acts, reporters should avoid excessive detail of the method used, while taking into account the media's right to report legal proceedings.
Awful to hear about Kate Spade - modern fashion icon, model businesswoman, sorely missed.— Polly Allen (@misspallen) June 5, 2018
Shame on @DailyMailCeleb breaking #IPSO responsible reporting code and ignoring guidelines from #mentalhealth charities by revealing the manner of her suicide on Twitter.
Others disagreed with the use of the phrase 'committed suicide', suggesting that the term 'commit' implies a criminal act. Instead, Natasha Devon MBE’s Mental Health Media Charter encourages journalists to write 'died by suicide'.
Together with mental health charities Samaritans, Mental Health First Aid England and Beat, Devon created the charter last year to mark World Mental Health Day. A set of seven guidelines, its aim is to make mental health reporting responsible, educational and stigma-reducing.
Dr Andrew Mayers, principal academic at Bournemouth University and Patron for Dorset Mind, explained that the media has a core responsibility to report responsibly on mental illnesses.
"The stigma towards mental health, and poor public perceptions, often means that someone who is vulnerable will not seek help, for fear of judgment," he said.
One way to tackle that is to redress these myths by portraying mental health accurately in the media.”
Having previously experienced an eating disorder herself, Devon has first-hand experience of how media coverage can be damaging.
“My illness was often portrayed in the press through ‘before and after’ pictures and by listing the lowest weights of the person with the illness," she said.
"I felt a sense of shame that I didn’t look like the people I saw in the media, which in turn hindered my recovery."
Horrified that even @nytimes is reporting details of Anthony Bourdain’s suicide. I thought all media had a similar code of ethics in reporting suicide— Rosita Boland (@RositaBoland) June 10, 2018
Within her guidelines, Devon suggests that whilst those who are in a healthy mindset may be deterred by the photos, those recovering from or experiencing an eating disorder may aspire to them.
“I did an online poll of people with first hand experience of mental illness as well as their families to find out what was considered the most and least helpful in terms of media portrayal,” explained Devon. Their answers then formed the basis of her charter.
More than 50 outlets have signed up to the charter so far, including Grazia, Heat Magazine and Radio and Times Educational Supplement.
"We have a responsibility around the way we report on mental health issues," said Lucie Cave, editorial creative director at Bauer Media, who are running Where's Your Head At?, a campaign to ensure employers look after the well-being of their workforce.
"The more mindful we are of way we speak about mental ill health the more ingrained it becomes in our everyday language whether that’s speaking to our audiences or personally through friends, colleges and family.
"As media owners with brands that attract significant readerships from many different type of demographics, we have a collective responsibility to speak about mental health issues in a sensitive and appropriate manner to reflect what is going on in society – the UK culture is changing everyday and we need to evolve with it in order to reflect the values and needs of our audiences."
Another example of poor mental health reporting by @DailyMailCeleb @DailyMailUK Please see the @MHMediaCharter for reasons not to use the term ‘committed suicide’ and suggested alternatives https://t.co/8fL8JCUDGS pic.twitter.com/c58t2IErYk— Lauren @MillysGuide (@MillysGuide) June 5, 2018
Devon sent an invitation to sign the charter to the editor of every major UK publication during last year’s World Mental Health Day, but only five per cent of those replied.
"Of those, there were many excuses. So, for this year’s World Mental Health Day I’m going to re-issue the invitation and share with our following so we can keep tabs on who has replied, what they have said and whether we consider the excuses given valid, she said.
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