If you want to know how a country views mental illness, take a look at the way its media reports on the issue. That is the view of some scholars who argue that newspapers, television and radio influence negative ideas about mental health.
Others suggest it’s the other way around: the media merely reflects what society already believes.
With these debates in mind, we wanted to explore the role that Ghana’s print media plays in shaping public opinion and disseminating knowledge about mental health disorders.
To do this we studied articles about mental health that appeared in the country’s newspapers between 2000 and 2015. There were a number of developments around mental health in Ghana during this period, particularly in terms of legislation.
Our analysis suggests that Ghana’s newspapers are largely doing a good job when it comes to reporting about mental health. Many articles showed a commitment to educating readers about the issue. Articles also highlighted how those with mental health disorders are still stigmatised in society.
Our findings are encouraging given the crucial role the media plays in informing and educating people.
There were, however, areas of concern. There were some instances in which we found newspapers were not disseminating accurate information about mental health. This needs to be addressed. Perhaps mental health experts could be brought into Ghana’s newsrooms to train journalists about how to report on the relevant issues. These experts could also be better used as resources for fact checking.
What we found
We chose newspapers because they are a popular source of information for Ghanaian’s.
Working with 164 articles from six Ghanaian newspapers – The Chronicle, Daily Graphic, Ghanaian Times, Mirror, Spectator, and Times Weekend – we were able to identify several themes related to mental health. These were awareness, advocacy, opinion, suicide, donations (and funding), and religion. Here is what we found.
Awareness: The articles in this category sought to provide information about mental health disorders and available treatment options. The problem was that some made false claims or misidentified mental health issues. It’s important to point out that only 1.8% of articles in our sample provided misinformation. Still, it is a problem that must be addressed.
In one piece, headlined “This is Killing Me Softly,” an advice columnist responded to a request for help about combating severe shyness around women. While the columnist’s advice challenged the writer to interact with women, it failed to acknowledge mental health implications – namely anxiety.
Advocacy: Articles in this category aimed to rally public support around mental health policy. One example, “Ghana’s Population in Psychological Distress,” called for the implementation of Ghana’s Mental Health Law.
These articles highlighted barriers to implementing mental health policies, and the administrative hurdles that prevent mental health services from being expanded.
Opinion: These pieces offered one writer’s perspective on mental health issues. One example was an opinion piece about an ongoing investigation into psychiatric hospitals. It showed how newspapers can be used as a platform to provide social commentary on mental health related matters, and to remind readers that mental illness is part of everyday life.
Opinion pieces also illustrated the press’s role in holding public agencies accountable on issues which would otherwise be suppressed.
Suicide: Most articles in this category were investigative reports that identified the victims and the alleged circumstances that led to suicide. Other articles aimed to raise awareness about suicide.
We also found that columnists played an important role in the lives of their readers as authorities about suicide. For example, one anonymous reader wrote to an advice columnist saying that he felt like committing suicide because he was not able to provide financially for his sextuplet newborns. The columnist offered useful resources and services for the writer.
Collectively, these articles illustrated the reality of suicide in Ghana.
Donations: a subset of articles reported on donations by individuals and organisations to psychiatric hospitals. These involved donations of time, cash or in-kind services.
The trend of local philanthropy reflected the low funding available to support the operation of psychiatric hospitals, the public recognition of this funding gap, and the public’s willingness to provide resources.
Religion: Other articles explored Christianity as a means of mental health self-care. The intersection of religion with mental well-being is not surprising given that many Ghananians are religious.
This certainly was not an exhaustive overview of public knowledge sources about mental health in Ghana. Similar research could focus on radio or television coverage, for instance.
That said, it provides a useful starting point for understanding the sort of messages many Ghanaians are getting about mental health. The analysis could be used to get journalists and media houses to think differently about how they report on these issues, and to plug the gaps where necessary.
Author’s note: Graduate students Alexis Briggs and Christina Barnett contributed to this article and to the research it is based on.Vivian Afi Abui Dzokoto, Associate Professor, Virginia Commonwealth University and Annabella Osei-Tutu, Senior Lecturer & Counseling Psychologist, University of Ghana