Objective: Because there are no published reports of depictions of mental illness in print media based on national samples, we set out to prospectively collect and analyse a near complete New Zealand sample of print media.
Methods: A commercial clipping bureau was contracted to provide cuttings of all items with any mental health or illness aspect over a four week period. These items were analysed for potentially positive and negative depictions and how mental illness was represented within each item. An independent search for additional newspaper items concerning one prominently featured topic indicated that the rate of identification of relevant stories was at least 91%.
Result: The collection consisted of six hundred print items which were most commonly news or editorial pieces (n = 562, 93.7%). Negative depictions predominated, with dangerousness to others (n = 368, 61.3%) and criminality (n = 284, 47.3%) being the most common. Positive depictions, including human rights themes, leadership and educational accomplishments occurred in 27% (n = 164) of all items. Generic mental illness terminology without reference to specific diagnostic categories was present in 47% of all items (n = 284).
Conclusions: Negative depictions that predominate confirm the stereotypic understanding of mental illness that is stigmatizing. These findings underscore the challenge facing us as mental health professionals attempting to change attitudes towards mental disorders when the stereotypes are so regularly reinforced.