A polite note on how to write about mental illness

I’ve got to hand it to the DailyMail.com.

As I wrote my new book first, we make the beast beautiful, there was one line amid the 90,000 words I penned, that I just knew the site would hunt down, isolate, recast out of context and sensationalise to their heart’s content. It involved a build-up of distress. A high-rating reality show. And a punch.

On cue, they did just this. Before the book came out. And without reading the book.

Yahoo7.com then took the DailyMail.com’s sensationalised anecdote about a distressing moment in my life, lifted from another publication’s interview with me, and beat it up even further, describing it as “a violent outburst” in the headline. They then editorialised it a few lines down as an “out of control temper tantrum”. Oh, indeed!

Both outlets conveniently ignored the context, why the anecdote was included in my book, the mindful effort I took to explain the lessons to be taken from such a charged moment, and – Lord forbid – my feelings about the matter.

Now, to be clear, I’m tough enough, and old enough, to not be hurt personally by such stories. I also know the deal: I’m in the public eye and have put my story out there; I’m fair game. Got it.

But. Here’s the thing…

This issue is not about me.

It’s bigger. It’s about the very sensitive needs of anyone diagnosed with an anxious disorder. It’s about responsibility. It’s about decency. It’s about being the kind, caring adult in the room.

Anxiety is complicated and a lot of misinformation surrounds its diagnoses and treatment. The point of my book is to try to have a more responsible, healing, productive conversation around all of this. Sensationalising my personal anecdotes (carefully chosen to help illustrate an insight, a teaching, a message), or the experiences of anyone with the condition, goes against this. It is highly irresponsible and…small.

There are protocols around writing about mental illness.

Those of you with proper journalistic training will know this and will be aware of how to tread respectfully around related issues. Those with no such training, here’s the comprehensive 56-page Mindframe document outlining Australian government guidelines for responsible media reporting of mental illness. May I strongly suggest you bone up. You have a responsibility to do so.

The document advises against stigmatising, victimising and jeopardising the wellbeing of those being treated with a mental health concern. It also flags inappropriate language. “Violent outburst”, at a guess, would be deemed inappropriate.

SANE Australia also offer a media advice line: 03 9682 5933.

And, then, of course, there’s a commonly held expectation that a writer or journalist is to be, yes, decent. I advocate an “itchy collar test” whereby, if I feel awkward and wrong about something I’m writing, I stop and ask myself, “Why did I join this profession in the first place?”. That’s right. It’s because I wanted to do the right thing.

I’m really easy to find, readily available for interview.

There is no excuse for not checking in with me for clarification on a sensitive issue. Or for not contacting my publisher for a copy of the book so you can get a complete picture.

Here, let me make it stupidly simple. Here’s the appropriate email addresses:

[email protected]

[email protected]

It’s really easy to find the context for anything in my book.

Because my publisher will happily send you a PDF of the book. You will then be able to do a search for the term/phrase with ease. Cool, hey.


I’ve been extremely mindful about how this book is presented.

Every word, to the best of my ability, was carefully chosen. As I say, my aim was to share my own experiences to the extent that they could best illustrate a perspective, an insight or a lesson. They are not the point of the book.

I wholly believe it’s a dead-set crook look not to respect another writer’s care.

It just buggers up all our hard work and intent. Seriously!

I’ve also been very – and somewhat controversially – mindful of what publicity I do for this book. The subject matter of the book needs to be treated gently, considerately and carefully, and so I’m not doing a blanket “sell sell sell” publicity campaign. I’m turning down requests from outlets who are known, for example, for bullying anyone who might be a bit “different” (um, re-use a teabag?) with their rogue reporting. Again, not for my own personal concern, but because it’s not decent or responsible to allow the subject to be treated in such a way.

To this end, I feel it my responsibility to write this post. Equally it’s my responsibility to follow up with any journalist or blogger who might not understand the important onus on their shoulders when dealing with this delicate issue.


Here’s why I wrote the book…

…because a few people have indeed asked me this in the wake of the DailyMail and Yahoo7’s stories (concerned for my welfare). This is what I wrote in the book itself:

My mate Rick asked me why I wrote the book. “Because I can’t help it and because I’m sick of being lonely.” Then I quoted something I’d read that morning from philosopher Alain de Botton’s School of Life: “We must suffer alone. But we can at least hold out our arms to our similarly tortured, fractured, and above all else, anxious neighbours, as if to say, in the kindest way possible: ‘I know.’”

Thanks for hearing me out. I don’t wish to sound patronising, although I might have let a few knowing statements slip through. Feel free to alert any bloggers you know to the guidelines above. In the kindest possible way…

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