How not to write about mental health

Mental health is currently big in the news. With Mental Health Awareness Week just behind us that’s hardly a surprise. I’m in favour of reducing stigma and increasing awareness (you may have noticed); so it was odd to find myself bothered by an article I woke up to this morning.

It was in the BBC magazine, and was a feature on teenagers deliberately poisoning themselves. ‘Self poisoning’ is the term the article uses, which I imagine is what the psychiatrists write in their notes. It is decent news reporting. It is not actively sensationalist. It interviews sufferers, who themselves have been trained to talk about their behaviour in medical language. And it really upset me.

It’s tricky to know what the healthiest response is, and what the most appropriate is given my adult life today. I don’t want to talk about this stuff all the time. But when it comes up I don’t want to ignore it either.

I worried over it for a few hours. This is where I came out.

First of all, the article had a direct emotional effect on me. I read it and I wanted immediately to write about how I coped as a teenager and what I was trying to cope with. I read it and I found myself shaking with the memories. I read it and I wanted to hide away. That wasn’t a great way to start the weekend, but nor were those feelings insuperable. It’s a sign that I’m basically well nowadays that by an hour or so later that emotion had gone.

Then my brain got to work more objectively.

I worry with this type of reporting about the effect on those it would most purport to want to help. People who are already in so much pain that they want to harm themselves are very vulnerable to discovering new ways to do that. I first cut myself after reading an Observer interview with someone who did that. I was 13. The article didn’t make me need an escape from my life or disconnect me from my body so much I didn’t care how I harmed it. But it did lead me to that particular route at that time.

In that context, read this paragraph from the article:

Jasmine is one of thousands of teenagers and young women who self-poison – using substances such as alcohol, painkillers and illegal drugs to make themselves sick. Sometimes they have calculated how much they need to feel badly ill without passing out and having to be taken to hospital.

That, I promise you, is a ‘how to’ guide for a vulnerable teenager. A little Googling on top of that will tell her how much to take. Yes, at the bottom of the article is a link to organisations that offer ‘advice and information’. No, that is not enough.

The eating disorder community understands this well. There is a set of rules for dealing with the topic: talk about the feelings and not about calories or weight. Talk about the strategies for staying well and never about the tricks sufferers use to hide their illness and sustain it. Never, ever show photographs of emaciated sufferers; they trigger admiration, self-hatred and a competitive instinct. All of those things would be fine for the mainstream reader of news. But not for those vulnerable to the illness. The reputable websites like BEAT require these boundaries of their members; this is a world in which trigger warnings are well used.

So I found this article irresponsible in its failure to follow that type of rule.

I also wondered how people without mental health issues responded as they read this over Saturday breakfast time. With fear? Concern? With curiosity? With prurience? The topic is unavoidably emotive, and the title ‘The teenagers who poison themselves’ does nothing to diminish that sense.

I imagine the benign intention was to bring a hidden practice out into the light.

But for me it falls unhelpfully between two stools. It is not news reporting of the need for cash for NHS services. It does not talk scientifically about prevalence. It does not lay out the facts of inpatients being admitted hundreds of miles from family and friends.

Nor does it convey what self-harm is all about.

Because it’s not for me about reading the statistics and being horrified by them; though that undoubtedly is helpful for increasing political pressure. It’s not about reading medical terminology which is cold and unspecific. It’s about what it feels like to be in it, and what it’s like to be out of it again.

It needs individuals who have suffered and not well-meaning feature writers to share what it is like. So go read Sally Brampton’s ‘Shoot the Damn Dog’ and get some sense of what that accomplished, talented woman felt and how that led her to kill herself earlier this month. Go read ‘The Bell Jar’ and remember that for all the idolation of Plath those feelings were felt by someone real. And if my lens on the problem interests you at all, go read ‘The Storyteller’ when it’s out in a fortnight’s time: it’s my best attempt to let people into that world.


As ever, if you want to read more musings on this topic, or to be reminded when my novel is published, then click here to subscribe to my newsletter.

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