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The Perils of Reporting on Mental Health

Jess McAllen writes about a recent story on mental health issues in the teaching profession – troubling, but not for the reasons its author thought.

When I applied for a job at Fairfax in 2014 I was faced with the question that all people with mental health conditions dread.

“Journalism can be a stressful environment,” the application form stated. “Do you have any physical or mental condition that could affect your job?”

I spent a good 48 hours deliberating about stating mine. It’s quite an existential question, especially if your diagnosis is still up in the air. Isn’t everyone a bit mentally ill anyway? What is normal? What is life? Ah.

Friends told me about times they opened up about their mental health conditions only to be stigmatised, ostracised and have it come back to haunt them for irrelevant reasons.

A former journalism tutor and mentor emailed back to my panicked query about whether it would be stupid to be honest. The polite version of his candid response was that if you removed all the neurotics from the nation’s newsrooms there would be no one left.

On Sunday, Stuff.co.nz ran a piece Nearly 100 Mentally-ill Teachers Investigated by the Education Council in the Past Six Years.

I would like to assume the reporter is a kind person who was probably under the pressure of deadlines and perhaps doesn’t have much knowledge about mental health stigma. Trying to pump out five stories a day while investigating the big stuff you really care about on the side is an inevitable part of modern journalism – and one that most critics don’t take into account when dissing clickbait content. But the story is harmful and the potential flow-on effect is huge. After reading it my heart sank and I wasn’t sure I could even get the words together to explain why I felt so let down.

Schoolchildren and teacher studying in school library

Now there’s a bunch of people who’ve read that article, including teaching college graduates, and they have just been handed a solid reason to not declare they have a mental illness when they apply for a teaching job.

Before people hate on Stuff, consider they have been doing amazing work around their Faces of Innocents project and Ashleigh Stewart did an in-depth series of stories on mental health recently that had a positive impact on the Christchurch community. The reporter of this story is probably an all good dude and mental health can be a tricky thing to report on.

“Since 2009, 99 teachers referred for investigation by the Education Council over concerns about their practice were found to have a range of disorders,” stated the story, “including depression, anxiety, bipolar disorder, substance abuse or addiction, post-traumatic stress disorder, ADHD and Asperger’s syndrome.”

The incidences: notification of a criminal conviction, 32; incompetence, 25; alcohol or drug abuse, 8; aggressive, violent or rough behaviour, 7; harassment or bullying, 2; theft or dishonesty, 4.

None of these things are necessarily related to a mental illness. Sure, someone with bipolar can abuse alcohol – but so can someone without a mental illness. Same goes with a criminal conviction. The incompetence is not always the fault of the mental illness, and while in some cases they may be linked, to equate the two is irresponsible.

Six paragraphs in, we find out this figure came from the list of 100,000 registered teachers. Over six years. Not once in the story are we given the total number of teachers who were investigated – a critical piece of information in helping determine whether there really is a problem here.

Nor can we compare it to the number of teachers who are mentally ill but coping damn well and using their experiences to help other kids at school – a place rampant with bullying and pressure that results in inevitable stress for young people. The most recent suicide statistics show 150 youth took their own lives in 2012.

Teachers like my year 10 English teacher who sent me a card when I started taking anti-depressants saying that she, too, took them and I would get through. What a light in a time of darkness that was.

And of those 99 teachers, four had their registration cancelled, one was suspended and six others had conditions of work enforced “including further training or medical treatment”.

That’s 11 teachers who were reprimanded – seven other investigations are yet to be completed – over a six year period. Doesn’t seem like a lot out of a pool of 100,000.

Putting aside the fact someone thought it was interesting and not at all strange to ask for records of mentally ill teacher complaints under the Official Information Act, basic tenets of journalism have not been met here.

At the very bottom of the story we see the largest amount of “incidents” from the mentally ill teachers occurred in 2010 (25). The lowest number of “incidents” occurred last year where there were just four. So the trend runs down.

This year there have been 14. That’s 14 incidents that may or may not be related to mental illness in the past year – and we still don’t know how many incidents there have been in total because the author decided that not to be relevant to the story?

As a journalist I sympathise. Nothing is worse than thinking you are getting a juicy story before having it fall flat. Sometimes you just have to let the story go. Or, better yet, analyse why you thought there was a story there to begin with.

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