How do the press report on schizophrenia?
How do the French press report on mental health, which is altogether « the promotion of well-being, prevention of mental illness, treatment and rehabilitation of people suffering from mental illness »? Or in other words: which part do the media play in shaping public attitudes towards this type of illness? Since the government made the issue public, media coverage of both the illness and its associated pathologies has hardly changed. Following the launching of the third ”Psychiatrie et Santé mentale” plan (PPSM) (Psychiatry and Mental Health) by the ministry of Health in 2018, we examined the current situation and looked for possible changes – particularly concerning schizophrenia.
Journalists very often misuse the language of psychiatry: hence, they stigmatize both psychiatric users and services, which causes harm to people diagnosed with schizophrenia and to their families. In this perspective, schizophrenia emerges as the most negatively covered of all pathologies – and yet, in France, over one out of 100 people suffer from this mental illness.
Insofar as social representations partly shape our relationships with others, it is worthwhile studying the written press in that it helps appreciate the way our society considers schizophrenia. Do journalists let patients have a say? Do they use the word schizophrenia adequately? Do they mention the social consequences of mental illness or do they contribute to the stigmatization of patients? To answer these questions, we have carried out a study of a press corpus made up of two mainstream national newspapers – Le Figaro and Le Monde –, respectively the most widely sold and most widely read national papers and of news releases from the Agence France Presse, the organisation supplying all the media with information.
News items and the image of dangerous schizophrenics
Schizophrenia is a particularly enlightening example of inappropriate media coverage of mental health. The word is indeed used very diversely – often in a metaphorical sense – which is detrimental to the mentally ill.
Our analysis underlines the decrease of the traditional association schizophrenia/news items even though it is still referred to when reporting on criminal cases: examples associating criminal acts with people suffering from mental disorders remain therefore quite frequent. And yet, in reality, they are only 5% of the cases: hence, those diagnosed with schizophrenia are stigmatized by this journalistic approach which causes them to internalize the stigma and retreat into social exclusion. It is worth noting that the “Agence France presse” use of this vocabulary is different: 63 % of the news releases using the word « schizophrenia » are directly connected with news items.
It is paradoxical that – although the word schizophrenia is commonly used in journalists’ vocabulary – the pathology is very little known by the general public. In 2018, le grand baromètre de la schizophrénie (poll about the public representation of schizophrenia), showed that 80% of the interviewees had got wrong or incorrect ideas about schizophrenia. Just as many underlined that their information about the topic was poor, which highlights the important role journalists can play. Because the choice of words directly impacts our social representations, it therefore becomes urgent to improve the situation and to reduce the number of inappropriate uses of the word « schizophrenia ».
How to reverse the stigma associated with schizophrenia?
In the field of mental health, there is stigmatization from the moment« a general stereotyped attitude caused by the misrepresentation or ignorance of a situation or a condition generates discriminatory attitudes and behaviours. Thus, it applies to any word or act meant to turn the diagnosis of an illness into a negative mark for the person suffering from this illness » (Giordana, 2010: 8). In this sense, stigmatization in the media is nothing new: it was already acknowledged by public authorities, especially through the 2011 PPSM second plan (Psychiatry and Mental Health plan) set up to reduce stigmatization.
The media can greatly contribute to its reduction, mostly by limiting the dissemination of negative images or by encouraging the development of information campaigns. Other public actors, such as the Groupement de coopération sanitaire (GCS –cooperation group for Health information) Psychom, are working to promote information and calling for moderation on sites and press forums. The most important demand supported by these actors is that information should be co-produced so as to give patients a chance to speak for themselves as a contribution to their own self-confidence.
Concerning associations and caregivers, the website of the association Promesses has a section entitled « The Press talking nonsense » which collects articles making an inappropriate use of the word schizophrenia. By doing so, they mean to raise those journalists’ awareness by directly communicating with them.
On the other hand, the journalists themselves are taking on the question and are trying to ensure that their coverage of mental health is in line with their deontology. To do so, professional associations of journalists are increasingly questioning their approach to the topics related to mental health: it means working to produce the right type of information but also making sure that it is in line with the journalistic ethics of the Munich Declaration of the Duties and Rights of Journalists (1971).
As such, Ajirpsy’s (Association of journalists for accountable information in psychiatry) initiative is worth mentioning: they have issued a guide meant for the professional sector « Médias et psychiatrie mémo à l’usage des journalistes » (Media and psychiatry, a memo for the use of journalists). Among various recommendations, it warns against the use of metaphorical vocabulary when speaking of schizophrenia – and more generally, of mental pathologies– when covering current news. Nevertheless, it looks as if journalists still find it difficult to apply these recommendations to their articles.
Metaphorical uses are still too common
The vocabulary related to schizophrenia is to be found more often in headlines and subheads than in the main text. In almost 6 articles out of 10, the word refers to something else than the pathology: it qualifies criminals, names artists or characterizes politicians. This particular use has been noted in the two dailies studied. These terms are mostly used to describe disturbing individual drifts in the political world.
The word « schizophrenic »is the one which is most often metaphorically used – in almost 3 articles out of 4. Besides the political field, it is mostly used to mention the world of enterprise; it may also be found in articles about ecology or the environment so as to enable journalists to question governmental inaction. The news releases from the Agence France Presse have a far less frequent inappropriate use of this word as their function is purely informative, focusing on facts without any stylistic devices.
Finally, it can be said that the vocabulary related to schizophrenia is adequately used only in scientific or health articles. But it should be remembered that this observation only applies to our national corpus: it is probably quite a different situation in regional dailies whose punchy headlines are often controversial.
Our research work ultimately shows that a far too metaphorical use of the words related to schizophrenia largely remains in the written national press – particularly to comment on current news. But it also highlights that some journalists are gradually avoiding its connection with news items while associating it with different issues. It is quite certain that all the steps taken by the associations previously mentioned and the ethical approach of the profession must have contributed to this evolution.
Consequently, journalists ought to address mental health issues « in-depth », especially to fulfil their professional duty to provide the public with information. There is a large range of possible improvements: the pathology treatment, the relationships of patients with their families are too rarely and too superficially addressed; caregivers are hardly given a chance to speak, neither are there any personal contributions from the patients themselves as shown in our study. Their social difficulties should also be mentioned and analysed.
Concerning this aspect of the pathology, the problem of social stigmatization is too seldom dealt with by journalists. They must absolutely take on these issues so that their discourse may contribute to demystify both the illness and the mentally ill. It should go together with a more respectful language towards them and less of those hyperboles used to gain an ever-increasing number or readers and internet users. Greater consideration given to these parameters would contribute to construct a more positive social image of mental health.
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