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Mental Health For All Webinar: Mental Health and the Media

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Chair: Sarah Johnson, Guardian 



Yves Zuñiga, Deputy Director of Policy and Partnerships, #MentalHealthPH, the Philippines 

Wannie Ngaujah, documentary filmmaker and journalist at Radio Democracy, Sierra Leone

Kari Cobham, Senior Associate Director, Rosalynn Carter Fellowships for Mental Health Journalism & Media at The Carter Center, USA

Alex Bushill, Head of Media and PR, Mind, UK


The recording of this webinar can be found here


Speakers key remarks on what impact the media can have on mental health:


Wannie Ngaujah: As a journalist I want to form a coalition of other journalists who have an interest and passion on mental health and use this to advocate for inclusion of mental health. 


Yves Zuñiga:  Media organisations have a huge role to play on suicide prevention and what you know can save lives. Information and proper portrayal can zero in on how best to prevent suicides in the future.


Alex Bushill: We can learn one lesson about mental health that even if we think we are invincible our mental health is as important as physical health.  After COVID-19 I hope we don’t lose sight of how important our mental health is. The nation has really learned how important it is for all of us.


Kari Cobham: We can shape the future of mental health beyond the pandemic. The world has changed. We have a new normal. We can continue to shift conversations forward in a more positive and less stigmatising way. 



Sarah Johnson: I know media reports can have a huge impact on people's mental health. The media can raise awareness and shape public understanding. But the media can and sometimes does get it wrong. Today we will talk about: how mental health is covered; support and guidelines on reporting on mental health; how to use media for campaigning activities; and the impact of COVID-19 on media attention on mental health. 


Sarah Johnson: Kari - what role do you see journalists playing - positive or negative?


Kari Cobham: Good question. It is a very important moment right now because COVID-19 has brought the mental health conversation to the forefront. There is a lot of stigma but because of COVID-19, mental health has become more part of the general discussion and it is more widely acknowledged as something impacting everyone. Therefore there is a rising understanding of mental health challenges and that those challenges are not limited to those with a mental disorder but can impact those who consider themselves to be mentally healthy. As journalists we can dig into the issue of how our mental health is being affected and how we are going to address it as we go further in the pandemic and beyond. It is an opportunity to find a way to normalise the conversation and promote health seeking behaviours. The Carter Center has produced a guide for journalists on reporting behavioural health.


Sarah Johnson: Wannie - you made a document about Mental health and COID-9 in Freetown, Sierra Leone. What inspired it? You what did you find out?


Wannie Ngaujah:I made my first documentary in 2018 about the increase in rape and teenage pregnancy and lack of access to safe abortions. I did this documentary to raise awareness of the issue. And I saw that people prefer watching these short clips to reading briefings and they respond. The documentary on mental health was something I did earlier this year. When it was posted on WhatsApp the spokesperson at the COVID-19 national response center saw it. At the time we did not have psychosocial support as part of the COVID-19 response. Because of my documentary they decided to include psychosocial support in the response. 


Sarah Johnson: Yves - tell us about your work and how you work with the media?


Yves Zuñiga: #MHPH is primarily a youth-led advocacy group using social media and technology. There is a S framework - support for Self (support everyone and create safe spaces); support for Society (normalise conversations); and support of the System (campaign to have better policies and programmes for mental health). We also foster relationships with media organisations as partners in addressing in the infodemic i.e. prevalence of misinformation and disinformation on mental health (e.g. suicide contracts). This year the World Mental Health Day theme was investment in mental health. We led an hour of the virtual March for Mental Health with three women that are influential in the Philippines including our Vice President of the Philippines who committed to provide more avenues to invest in mental health. We also do training and raise awareness on mental health e.g. we trained more than 2000 participants in psychological first aid including journalists.

Sarah Johnson: How have you fostered relationships with the media? 


Yves Zuñiga: we establish a contact person and have a two-way relationship. We help them with clarification on information to provide the right facts and figures. We also share information with them to help deepen their understanding. 


Sarah Jonhson: Tell us about your work at MIND advising on scripts and story lines for TV?


Alex Bushill:  Have a news team, a celebrity and ambassador team. The media advisory service is the focus for soft power. It is not about brand recognition for MIND but working with programme makers - non-fiction, soaps, drama - to help them try to have as rounded and the most realistic as possible portrayal of mental health. We work with scriptwriters for soap operas in the UK such as EastEnders and Coronation Street that have millions of viewers. Any time there is a character with a mental health disorder we help the script writers keep away from any stigmatising . We know we can have a transformative effect on millions. We have done various surveys. In the UK 1 in 5 people who have seen a mental health storyline on screen will seek help from family or friends. It requires patience and understanding - it is not about branding but the idea of seeing positive and accurate depictions. The viewers are encouraged to look for help or support those in need of help. 


Sarah Johnson: Tell us about your work?


Kari Cobham:The Rosalyn Carter fellowships were founded in 1996 to support journalists to tell stories about mental health. The journalists receive mentorships throughout the year. They are trained on mental health reporting and best practice on language. They help to elevate the conversation and avoid stigma. We encourage them to show how to seek help and get better. We also work on the language used to make sure it is supportive e.g. changing from “suffering from depression” to “living with depression”. There is no editorial say on what the journalists report but we encourage accuracy and sensitivity.  


Sarah Johnson: What impacts have you had thanks to your work? How can journalism be used to deliver change?


Wannie Ngaujah: Thank you for having me. I work for the most popular radio station in Sierra Leone and lots of important people listen including ministers and the President. We try to create a high standard of reporting. We try to make use of our platform. I have a health show on Thursdays where we discuss health issues and try to bring up topics such as malaria, dysentery and the needs especially of those living in slum areas. We use the show as a platform for advocacy and we advocate for mental health. The mental health documentary I made has created impact and online now and viewers are commenting and spreading the message. The documentary is about how people cope during the COVID-19 and how people will accept this new crisis and how it will affect them. When the crisis started and I did my documentary to show the needs people had; there has been an impact because afterward the government started providing food and financial support for people. We used the radio station to advocate for the people and the government responded. 


Sarah Johnson: How has the media changed in depictions of mental health?


Alex Bushill: We are seeing more accurate depictions of mental health. There is progress. But let's talk about story lines. Anxiety attacks used to be only shown as women passing out but through the media advisory service we are explaining how to depict it properly and sensitively. We put actors in touch with those with lived experience and their conversations mean the actor can better bring to life the mental health condition on the screen. The script writers want the most dramatic storylines e.g. they wanted to show hallucinations of the victim while she was in court. But we talked to different advisors and then explained that it is a different condition (it is psychosis not PTSD). So the script writers worked with lived experience volunteers and then they used memories and flashbacks rather than hallucinations. If you use the MIND media advisory service you go from a two dimensional, triggering and stigmatising betrayal to something that shows how a character experiences a mental health condition through to a hopeful conclusion. Following such a story line on a show we see huge uptakes in people contacting our mental health helplines. 


Yves Zuñiga: Mental health in the Philippines has become more relevant and more relatable to people in the context of COVID-19. More people are made aware they are not alone in these struggles and help is available But some media organizations may still need to look at how they report sensitive issues such as suicide. We support responsible reporting of suicide. The Carter Center and the WHO have both produced really good resources that are available. We have organised a session for the media attended by over 1000 participants to discuss how to report on suicide and suicide preention. It is very important now to include mental health resources at the end of the article so readers know when to seek help. Accurate information can save lives. Big social media organisations have the resources that we can localise to show people where they can get help.


Question from the audience

The role of the media has become confused. How do you balance media independence with the misreporting? What has been the impact of the journalism fellowships? 


Kari Cobham:  It is really important and it is important to distribute clear guidelines that journalists can follow. We have to develop a culturally nuanced approach and build relationships with the local media in order to address the problems and the best ways to address them. You can try to help guide them. The Carter Center fellowships’ success is evaluated on an annual and project basis. We know 1 in 7 fellows who have been through the programme have had a direct impact on public policy at national or local or individual systems. If we tackle mental health in an innovative and timely way it can drive change.


Next session will be on mental health, HIV and TB and you can register here