The mass media must improve the way it reports on mental health issues, concludes the author of a Comment which accompanies the Lancet Series on Global Mental Health. Greg Miller, of the journal Science, San Francisco, USA, says: "The mass media exerts a powerful influence on public attitudes about mental health. However the message that often comes across reinforces negative stereotypes about people with mental illness: they are strange, unpredictable and probably dangerous. Improvement of the situation will need effort on the part of both media and mental health professionals."
Miller refers to the example of the Virginia Tech University massacre earlier this year, and the coverage which followed, which focussed largely on the mental health of the shooter, Seung-Hui Cho. Miller says: "It is worth asking why derogatory labels related to mental illness still appear in the media, whereas slurs based on race or physical disabilities are widely regarded as unacceptable, even in describing perpetrators of serious crimes. The likely answer is that members of the media are susceptible to the same prejudices and misunderstandings about mental illness that prevail in the general public."
On the flip side, the Media also has the ability to bring positive attention for mental health causes, for example in the aftermath of the Asian Tsunami in 2004 brought attention to the psychological effect of disasters and the paucity of mental health services there.
Miller concludes: "Mental health professionals and consumers can help improve coverage of mental health issues by engaging and educating members of the media. Without open lines of communication, little will change."