This October, in Mental Health Month, we attended the launch of a new set of guidelines for images used in mental health reporting. The insights into the way images can cause harm – but also do good – was eye-opening.
By Melissa Marino
As professional communicators, we know that pictures can speak louder than words.
A striking photograph or illustration draws people to a story. And in our time-poor lives, the headline and picture may be all the audience sees. An image, therefore, has the power to create a narrative all of its own.
So choosing images to run with a story is a critical job.
Often a picture editor will select an image because of its composition, lighting, drama, or – if they’re racing to deadline – because it’s available at their fingertips.
But what if the photos we choose can cause harm to another person?
This was a key insight from the launch of Images matter: Mindframe guidelines for image use – a fantastic new resource for media and other communicators reporting on issues around mental health, suicide, and drug and alcohol misuse.
We learnt that, when it comes to reporting on mental health, real harm can be caused by the pictures we use.
Dr Jaelea Skehan, CEO of Everymind, which had oversight of the guidelines, told us that research by the SANE Australia’s StigmaWatch program revealed that often complaints from people with lived experience of mental ill-health around the reporting of the issues was not in the article content itself but the headline or image that had run with it.
Images such as the generic and inauthentic ‘head in hands’ or a person at the edge of a cliff were offensive, stigmatising and triggering, presenters at the launch said.
But the good news is that the new online guidelines and the accompanying resources – including importantly a 1000-strong (and growing) photo library for use royalty-free – have the power to change all that.
For us at Coretext, the resource will be invaluable.
Working directly with the Australian Counselling Association on its member magazine, we deal with this type of content all the time. The photo library and guidelines that come with a helpful checklist and guidance cards for quick reference on specific topics such as self-harm or eating disorders will help us ensure the images we choose meet the Mindframe aims to minimise harm and discrimination and increase audience engagement.
Appropriate images, we learnt, reflect an environment of support, which could encourage people to reach out. They normalise issues around mental-ill health by showing the diversity of people affected – people who also lead productive lives involving everyday activities.
As the COVID-19 pandemic taught us, we are all impacted by issues around mental health. If we haven’t directly experienced mental ill-health ourselves, we will know someone who has. It’s not ‘us’ and ‘them’. Telling the stories and depicting the issues in a sensitive way is empowering for us all.
Read more on this story in the upcoming December issue in CA Journal for Australian Counselling Association.