Media & Mental Health: Our Words Matter

The Kennedy Forum’s annual meeting October 6 & 13 presents “Our Words Matter: Harnessing the Power of Communications to Advance Mental Health Equity.” The online event features leaders in communications, media, advocacy, and activism to discussing best practices and defining a clear path forward. The meeting will feature remarks from Patrick Kennedy, former congressman and founder of The Kennedy Forum; Representatives John M. Katko and Grace Napolitano, co-chairs of the congressional mental health caucus; and Senator Dick Durban.

Click here to register and attend “Our Words Matter”

From the The Kennedy Forum:

“Today’s society is hindered by an unconscious, implicit bias that fuels discrimination against those living with mental health and substance use disorders. Our words often reflect that bias, perpetuating negative stereotypes. Thus, the urgent need for more thoughtful, accurate communications about mental health and addiction that will open minds, connect communities, and empower policymakers. Now, more than ever, we must take steps to understand, nurture, and advance the role of communications in the fight for mental health equity. Normalizing a national conversation is key to lasting change.”

Program highlights October 6:

“Our Digital Reckoning: A Deep-Dive into the Past & Present of Mental Health in the Media”

For the first time in history, we’re seeing conversations about mental health dominate headlines, traditional journalism, celebrity news, hit songs, and Instagram posts. Media trailblazers, clinical experts, and activists come together to set the stage for the day: What got us to this critical moment, and what are the implications of finally pulling the realities of mental illness and substance use out of the shadows and into our headlines?

  • Kate Snow, Senior National Correspondent & Anchor, NBC News
  • Kari Cobham, Senior Associate Director, The Carter Center’s Rosalynn Carter Fellowships
  • Bruce Shapiro, Executive Director, The Dart Center for Journalism and Trauma
  • Mark Ishaug, CEO, Thresholds

“Generation Push Notification: The Impact of Ever-present Tech on our Mental Wellbeing”

We are well into the age of the 24-hour news cycle. Information constantly surrounds us. We no longer have to seek out news and media; instead tech companies continually feed us through sophisticated algorithms. Are these advancements creating efficiencies in our information consumption? Or is it creating a tech addiction and negatively impacting our mental health? This panel convenes experts from The Social Dilemma, a 2020 American docudrama film that provides a deep dive into how social media’s design is meant to nurture an addiction, manipulate individuals, and make us question the “truth.”

  • Dr. Anna Lembke, Chief, Stanford University Addiction Medicine Dual Diagnosis Clinic
  • Jonathan Haidt, Social Psychologist, New York University Stern School of Business
  • Renée DiResta, Technical Research Manager, Stanford Internet Observator
  • Eileen Guo, Senior Reporter for Tech Policy, Ethics, and Social Issues, MIT Technology Review

“Confronting Your Chaos and Using Your Platform for Change”

CNN’s Irish journalist, Donie O’Sullivan, earned praise for his reporting from the January 6th riot in Washington, DC and for his calm demeanor in the face of an angry crowd leading a violent attack on the U.S. Capitol building. But this measured reporter will also tell you that, “The most terrifying position I have been in in my life has been in my own mind in the grips of anxiety and depression.” This sincere discussion explores one reporter’s experience with mental health challenges and how he is using his platform as a high-profile journalist to engage others in honest, and sometimes difficult, conversations around mental health.

  • Donie O’Sullivan, Correspondent, CNN
  • Rhitu Chatterjee, Health Correspondent, NPR

“Gaming the System: An Influencer’s Approach to Promoting Mental Health Care”

By 2022, the online gaming market is expected to take in $196 billion in revenue, more than box office and recorded music revenues combined. Currently, there are over 2 billion gamers worldwide who seek out platforms such as Twitch and Caffeine to live stream their favorite gameplay. One influencer is using this platform to reach young people and discuss real life issues including mental health care and substance use.

  • She Snaps, Online Broadcaster, Podcaster and Mental Health Advocate
  • Ryan Jenkins, Anchor / Reporter, TMJ4 NBC Milwaukee

“The Weight of Gold: The Pursuit of Olympic Dreams and the Fallout”

Olympics athletes train for most of their lives for an opportunity on the world’s biggest athletic stage. When it’s over, many athletes face mental health challenges. Hear from Brett Rapkin, Director of the HBO Sports documentary The Weight of Gold, on the process and importance of sharing the mental health stories of Michael Phelps, Apolo Ohno, Shaun White, Lolo Jones, and others. Learn how the documentary inspired discussion about mental health issues, encouraged people to seek help, and highlighted the need for support.

  • Brett Rapkin, CEO & Founder, Podium Pictures
  • Jeremy Bloom, 3-time World Champion / 2-time Olympic Skier

Program highlights October 13:

“Barrier-Free Care: How the Digital Era Harnesses Online Communities and Accessibility to End Mental Health Stigma”

Technology has broadened our ability to engage individuals in wellness and mental health care. More and more, people are turning to apps, social media, podcasts, and more to learn and explore their own self-care. We talk to three leaders in the field who are breaking down traditional barriers in an effort to heal others.

  • Dr. Joy Harden Bradford, Licensed Psychologist, Author, Therapy for Black Girls
  • Jennifer Libby, Founder & CEO, Promly
  • Aidan Kohn-Murphy, Founder & CEO, Gen-Z For Change
  • Michael Puente, Reporter, WBEZ Chicago

“Separating Raven From The Hulk: One Olympian’s Story About Strength In All Forms”

Raven Saunders is a silver medalist in shot put at the 2020 Tokyo Olympics. In her life, she won three NCAA collegiate titles in the shot put for the University of Mississippi, was a world junior medalist in 2014, and the Pan American junior champion in 2015. She holds a personal record of 19.96 m for the shot put. Raven is also a fierce advocate for mental health due to her own personal challenges and triumphs. She shares her story with NBC journalist, Char Adams, who helped to bring her into the media spotlight.

  • Raven Saunders, Olympic Silver Medalist
  • LZ Granderson, OpEd Columnist, The Los Angeles Times

“Speaking Your Truth: Courage and Authenticity in the Face of Online (and offline) Mental Health Stigma”

Join this intimate conversation with former Congressman Patrick Kennedy and Andy Cohen, Emmy Award-winning host, producer, and author best known as the host and executive producer of the Emmy-Nominated “Watch What Happens Live with Andy Cohen,” on Bravo. Throughout his career – spanning from network journalism, authoring bestselling books, hosting talk shows, and touring with Anderson Cooper – Andy has been exposed to many sides of the media and its impact on our popular culture. In this session, Andy will share his personal experiences in the field and offer perspective on how we can utilize media to change the conversation around mental health.​

  • Andy Cohen, Host & Executive Producer, “Watch What Happens Live with Andy Cohen”
  • Patrick J. Kennedy, Former Congressman (D-RI), Founder of The Kennedy Forum

“MindSite News: Shining A Light On Mental Health”

MindSite News is a new, editorially independent, digital publication focused on mental health, resilience and recovery. This new platform intends to translate science into accessible English and be written in a way that is powerful, authoritative, and engaging to both experts and the lay public. To shed more light on MindSite itself, James Burns, Interim Executive Director of The Kennedy Forum Illinois will sit down with Rob Waters, Founding Editor of MindSite News, to discuss this new platform and how it came to be. They will dive into details around editorial content curation and the distribution channels for this content, as well as how people can actively engage and contribute to this new, and important resource for the mental health community.

  • Rob Waters, Founding Editor, MindSite News
  • James Burns, Interim Executive Director, Illinois, The Kennedy Forum

“Our Words Matter: The Role of Journalists in Creating Safe, Human-centered Stories about Mental Health”

Although stereotypes and misperceptions regarding mental health and substance use disorders are pervasive, journalists can play an influential role in educating and informing the public about these public health issues and reduce the prevalence of sensationalized inaccurate information that fuels stigma and discrimination. Join this powerful discussion to learn how to promote responsible and fair communications in our media.

  • Dr. Steven Adelsheim, Clinical Professor, Director, Stanford Center for Youth Mental Health and Wellbeing
  • John Daniszewski, Vice President and Editor at Large for Standards, The Associated Press
  • Scott MacLeod, Co-Founder and President, The Sophie Fund
  • Christine Herman, Reporter, Illinois Public Media

13 Reasons Why: Warning Label

The new Netflix series 13 Reasons Why is generating alarm among many mental health professionals and suicide prevention experts, who are concerned about the risks of glamorizing suicide and the possibility of contagion.


Netflix kicked up a controversy with the series released on March 31 about a high school junior named Hannah who takes her own life. The series received a 91 percent critics approval rating and an 88 percent audience rating on Rotten Tomatoes. Critics praised the cast’s performances and the “authentic,” “sensitive,” and “hard hitting” portrayal of teenager angst.

However, 13 Reasons Why needs a warning label. The National Association of School Psychologists cautions that the series should not be viewed by vulnerable young people who experience any degree of suicidal ideation. NASP warns:

“Its powerful storytelling may lead impressionable viewers to romanticize the choices made by the characters and/or develop revenge fantasies. They may easily identify with the experiences portrayed and recognize both the intentional and unintentional effects on the central character. Unfortunately, adult characters in the show, including the second school counselor who inadequately addresses Hannah’s pleas for help, do not inspire a sense of trust or ability to help.”

NASP has problems with the accuracy of how mental illness and suicide are portrayed in the series. For example, it is concerned that the series does not emphasize that common among most suicide deaths is the presence of treatable mental illnesses. And that suicide is not the simple consequence of stressors or coping challenges, but rather, it is most typically a combined result of treatable mental illnesses and overwhelming or intolerable stressors.

Despite the strong misgivings, some see the widespread publicity around 13 Reason Why as an opportunity at least to spread greater awareness about suicide and suicide prevention. NASP says that the controversy is an “opportunity to better understand young people’s experiences, thoughts, and feelings,” educate parents, teachers, and students alike about suicide risk warning signs, and reinforce the message that suicide is not a solution to problems.

NASP advises that school psychologists and other school-employed mental health professionals can assist stakeholders such as school administrators, parents, and teachers to engage in supportive conversations with students as well as provide resources and offer expertise in preventing harmful behaviors. NASP published “Considerations for Educators,” guidance on 13 Reasons Why. Download it here.

Experts say if you’re thinking about the safest and best way to lead a discussion with teens about 13 Reasons Why and suicide, read the tip sheet co-authored by Suicide Awareness Voices of Education (SAVE) and the JED Foundation. Click here to download the tip sheet.

Some recommended reading from experts on the subject of suicide contagion:

Preventing Suicide With A “Contagion Of Strength” (National Public Radio February 25, 2015)

The Science Behind Suicide Contagion (New York Times, August 14, 2014)

Teen suicide: Prevention is Contagious, Too (Christian Science Monitor, December 8, 2013)

[If you or someone you know feels the need to speak with a mental health professional, you can contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 or contact the Crisis Text Line by texting HOME to 741-741.]

Robin Williams’s Story

The widow of Robin Williams has written a detailed account of the brave struggle with an undiagnosed brain disease called Lewy Body Dementia that preceded the comedian’s suicide in 2014.


Headlined “The terrorist inside my husband’s brain,” Susan Schneider Williams’s essay in Neurology reports that “the massive proliferation of Lewy bodies throughout his brain had done so much damage to neurons and neurotransmitters that in effect, you could say he had chemical warfare in his brain.”

Susan Schneider Williams used the platform of a medical journal to specifically address her words to medical researchers, saying she hoped the “personal story, sadly tragic and heartbreaking,” would further inspire them to persevere in the quest for a cure. Given the initial media frenzy that dwelled on the actor’s past struggles with depression and substance abuse, the essay also helps expose the harm of stigmatizing suicide through simplistic stereotyping.

Listen to a podcast with Susan Schneider Williams here.

Excerpts from her essay:

My husband Robin Williams had the little-known but deadly Lewy body disease (LBD). He died from suicide in 2014 at the end of an intense, confusing, and relatively swift persecution at the hand of this disease’s symptoms and pathology. He was not alone in his traumatic experience with this neurologic disease. As you may know, almost 1.5 million nationwide are suffering similarly right now. …

Although not alone, his case was extreme. Not until the coroner’s report, 3 months after his death, would I learn that it was diffuse LBD that took him. All 4 of the doctors I met with afterwards and who had reviewed his records indicated his was one of the worst pathologies they had seen. He had about 40% loss of dopamine neurons and almost no neurons were free of Lewy bodies throughout the entire brain and brainstem. …

Not until after Robin left us would I discover that a sudden and prolonged spike in fear and anxiety can be an early indication of LBD. …

I will never know the true depth of his suffering, nor just how hard he was fighting. But from where I stood, I saw the bravest man in the world playing the hardest role of his life. …

Robin was losing his mind and he was aware of it. Can you imagine the pain he felt as he experienced himself disintegrating? And not from something he would ever know the name of, or understand? Neither he, nor anyone could stop it—no amount of intelligence or love could hold it back. He kept saying, “I just want to reboot my brain.”…

After months and months, I was finally able to be specific about Robin’s disease. Clinically he had PD [Parkinson’s Disease], but pathologically he had diffuse LBD. The predominant symptoms Robin had were not physical—the pathology more than backed that up. However you look at it—the presence of Lewy bodies took his life. …


Memo to “Good Morning America”

“It’s the top of our morning show. We don’t want suicide on the brain.”
That’s how ABC’s Good Morning America asked a group of dedicated, t-shirted, poster-holding suicide prevention campaigners to scram during GMA’s live broadcast on September 8. That’s according to one of the group’s leaders, Jill Harkavy-Friedman, a Columbia University professor and head of the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention’s research program.

When the No. 1 morning show (four million plus daily viewers) flinches from this subject during National Suicide Prevention Week, we know there’s a lot more to be done in raising awareness about mental illness—even among the journalists whose mission is to educate viewers about issues of public interest.

Memo to GMA: Suicide is the tenth leading cause of death in the United States, and the second leading cause of death among Americans between the ages of 15 and 24. A fact sheet from the Centers for Disease Control describes suicide as “a significant problem in the United States,” pointing to data:

—41,149 people killed themselves in 2013.

—Suicides result in an estimated $44.6 billion in combined medical and work loss costs.

—Over 494,169 people with self-inflicted injuries were treated in U.S. emergency departments in 2013.

After her experience with Good Morning America, Harkavy-Friedman recalled in The Mighty:

We were in such good moods, standing there in our colorful shirts: far from a dour image that would have brought any early morning viewers down. We were ready to happily answer questions like, “What can we do to prevent suicide?” and, “How can you start a conversation with someone you’re worried about?” Simply giving people the answers to these questions saves lives.

The Violence Myth

A new study published by the leading health policy journal Health Affairs says that the news media’s misrepresentation of the connection between mental illness and violence may undermine public support for mental health policies.

The study, “Trends In News Media Coverage Of Mental Illness In The United States: 1995–2014,” sampled 400 news stories about mental illness, and found that 55 percent of them mentioned violence. By contrast, only 14 percent described successful treatment for or recovery from mental illness.

The study provides some context to the media reporting on whether mental illness was a factor in the mass murder of 49 people at an Orlando gay night club on June 12 by a 29-year-old man, Omar Mateen. In the New York Times, security expert Peter Bergen writes that a New America study found that only one in ten terrorists—below the incidence in the general population—had mental health problems.


Here’s the full abstract of the study:

The United States is engaged in ongoing dialogue around mental illness. To assess trends in this national discourse, we studied the volume and content of a random sample of 400 news stories about mental illness from the period 1995–2014. Compared to news stories in the first decade of the study period, those in the second decade were more likely to mention mass shootings by people with mental illnesses. The most frequently mentioned topic across the study period was violence (55 percent overall) divided into categories of interpersonal violence or self-directed (suicide) violence, followed by stories about any type of treatment for mental illness (47 percent). Fewer news stories, only 14 percent, described successful treatment for or recovery from mental illness. The news media’s continued emphasis on interpersonal violence is highly disproportionate to actual rates of violence among those with mental illnesses. Research suggests that this focus may exacerbate social stigma and decrease support for public policies that benefit people with mental illnesses.

The Atlantic has a good review of the study here.

An extract:

…[A] consistent and dangerous narrative has emerged—an explanation all-too-readily at hand when a mass shooting or other violent tragedy occurs: The perpetrator must have been mentally ill.

“We have a strong responsibility as researchers who study mental illness to try to debunk that myth,” says Jeffrey Swanson, a professor of psychiatry at Duke University. “I say as loudly and as strongly and as frequently as I can, that mental illness is not a very big part of the problem of gun violence in the United States.”

The overwhelming majority of people with mental illnesses are not violent, just like the overwhelming majority of all people are not violent. Only 4 percent of the violence—not just gun violence, but any kind—in the United States is attributable to schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, or depression (the three most-cited mental illnesses in conjunction with violence). In other words, 96 percent of the violence in America has nothing to do with mental illness.