The images that are used in stories can be just as damaging as the words or the headlines

Often the pictures accompanying stories around mental health are generic stock showing people isolated and in distress. In fact people with mental health problems come from all walks of life and will have much more going on than simply their mental health problem.

More worryingly images that accompany stories around people with mental heath problems are also commonly taken from films that perpetuate outdated stereotypes of mental illness.

Images showing people in acute distress may actually increase the stigma and discrimination faced by people with mental health problems and increases the stereotype of people ‘losing their minds’. Some images may even trigger certain behaviour.

Some really strong stories that may include great content and have educational value can be weakened by the use of an innappropriate image.

  • Most people with mental health problems will never be in-patients because of their condition, so using shots of a hospital ward can be misleading
  • Many people who have mental health problems don’t take medication so showing pills is not always appropriate or accurate
  • In the same way you may show a range of people or crowd shots to illustrate a story about the general population, you can do the same with a story around mental illness, after all 1 in 4 of us has a mental health problem
  • If you are using a photo or footage of a case study then ensure that they understand how it will be used. Check they are prepared to be identified in the story this way
  • Avoid using any images that could be considered ‘triggering’ for people. Images that show how people self harm may lead to the imitation of self-harming behaviour by other people at risk. The Samaritans have some great media guidelines that deal specifically with suicide and self harm
  • Using stills from films such as 'Psycho', 'The Shining' or 'One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest' to illustrate mental health problems is innacurate and may contribute to outdated stereotypes of 'mad, bad & dangerous'

Avoiding the ‘headclutcher’ image

Very often, we see an image of a person holding their head in their hands. All manner of mental health stories – about anything from talking treatments to scientific research – are illustrated by a 'headclutcher' photo. But what alternatives to the 'headclutcher' and other stigmatising images do picture editors have?

We ran our Get the Picture campaign to promote a wide range of images, that are free to download from our own page on the Newscast website. They are hi-res and suitable to be published alongside news stories and features. We want picture editors to have a real choice of realistic and relevant photos to bring reports about mental health to life.