There’s too much inaccurate, unhelpful and stigma-reinforcing stuff in the media about mentally ill people and not nearly enough about their achievements and those of staff whose skill and commitment contribute to these. The good news is that ward staff can help change public opinion about mental illness and about inpatient care!
There are lots of reasons to get good news stories about mental health wards out there:
- Uplifting for staff
- Interesting and reassuring for patients and their friends and family
- Interesting and reassuring for ‘the public’
- Helps staff (and management!) notice and be appreciative of good practice rather than take it for granted
- Helps as evidence of excellence with commissioners, regulators etc
- Very important as a way of challenging stigma, including the compounded stigma of hospitalisation.
The prospect of more work, and in a specialist area, may not immediately fill you with joy! But all Trusts have communications teams and they are eager for good news stories about patients, staff and the wards. Forming a good link with your comms team should be a very time-efficient way of providing regular morale boosts for staff and welcome information for patients and the public.
Spreading The Good News
How to find and share good news stories
- Noticing the significance of new service developments and patient experience. We are compelled to repeat that it’s very common for wards providing great services to take this enormous, and very interesting, achievement for granted.
- Appointing a member of staff to be the link with the comms team, who will be able to give them some basic training and advice.
- Having a news noticeboard and ask the comms team to give you hospital press cuttings to put on it.
Prompts for good news stories
New and exciting:
- Achievements, progress, positive life changes
- Patient feedback, especially if it’s a bit formal like a survey
- Work-related – eg promotions, new appointments, awards
- Not work related eg exciting travel, fund-raising etc
Some patients actively want to tell their story, whether they are new, veteran or never activists. (A quick look at the lively mental health community presence on Twitter confirms the energy and expertise of many service users.) Patient involvement can range from anonymised quotes to starring on Newsnight! But this is still a sensitive and complex area…. which is one of the reasons why Trusts have communications teams! They are very experienced in involving patients, including ex-patients and service user reps, in getting and publicising good news stories.
A good way of identifying and linking up with ex-patients is through local service user groups. Many are actively involved in anti-stigma work and are keen to express their views through the media. And indeed are already doing so!
Internal and external publicity – Trust newsletter, magazine and website and social media such as Twitter and Facebook.
The comms team can advise on if and how to use social media – for example, an increasing number of Trusts have Facebook pages, making it very easy for people to ask questions, provide their views etc.
Local newspapers and radio stations are very enthusiastic about positive things happening in their communities. Many patients and staff will have a strong sense of how well their local paper covers mental health issues, and the comms team will know which journalists are highly trust-worthy and which are best avoided.
Nationally, realistically we’re talking about good news stories appearing as features rather than news items. (It would have to be a real corker of a positive story to appear in the news section.) But features are arguably the best place to be, because there’s the space and culture to explore the complexities of people’s mental health and lives and none of the ‘drama’ requirements of news. Particularly receptive places will be health sections and women’s magazines (especially health sections of women’s magazines!) Anyway, again the comms team will be on top of all this and very appreciative of any help you can give them to get informative and moving stories to a wider public.
Then there’s the sector media (eg nursing journals, mental health magazines). We can’t safely assume that colleagues outside of inpatient mental health care have a particularly accurate picture of your work! The better their knowledge, the more effectively they can work with you and the patients you’re caring for. There’s a valuable new trend of frontline staff being encouraged to write about their work and have it published whether in an anonymous blog, good practice feature in a sector magazine or a highly academic, peer-reviewed piece of research appearing in a professional journals.
- The ward runs a weekly current affairs group. The group facilitator prints news stories from websites like BBC News and Sky News. This is both cost-effective and allows staff to select the most appropriate stories. Patients are encouraged to share their views, opinions and say how they relate to the subjects covered.
- There’s a board on the ward titled ‘Your News’. Everyone is encouraged to share their good news in the form of ‘news stories’, poems, drawings etc.
- A range of memorable images in the form of postcards, posters and banners has been developed that depict powerful images of people living lives in a high secure setting, focusing on what they can do rather than what can’t. The campaign aims to raise awareness and promote patient achievements and ensure people understand recovery values and support equity and social inclusion for all patients.
Perhaps the most important thing to remember is that service users have a different experience of and relationship to the subject matter than staff do. This applies also with staff who are also service users – they have a dual relationship with the issue and may have very different sensitivities, priorities etc in these two roles.
- Purpose of film
- Who will be seeing the film, through what ‘platforms’ etc
- Who will be doing the interviewing, who else will be present
- Option of bringing or having present an experienced support person (could be called something like media advisor which sounds less patronising)
- Option of having a debriefing session after the interview, whether immediately, or an hour or day later or whatever feels right to the interviewee. Debrief probably offered to be with the media advisor
- Parameters, if any, for editorial control by interviewee – whether to pull the interview in its entirety or part, up to what point in the process etc
2. Meaningful permission
- Person is in a suitable state of mind to make the decisions about whether and how to participate
- Understanding about what options, if any, there are for degrees of anonymity, pseudonymity etc
3. Practical information and help
- When, where (including whether indoor or out so that interviewee has appropriate clothing), how long, where to meet etc
- Help with transport and instant repayment of fares rather than going through bureaucratic and schlepped out form filling process
4. Choice of film-makers, reporters, journalists etc
- This is very, very important, especially the person who is doing the interviewing. There are many film companies, journalists etc that have extensive experience of sensitive, considerate, effective work with service users. Charities representing particular ‘client groups’ can be asked for recommendations and the selection process should include rigorous questioning to ensure that they ‘get it’.
- The director or journalist should be well-briefed not only about the purpose, style etc of film, but also about any likely issues connected with a service user interviewee. These could be cognitive (eg using shorter than usual sentences), emotional (eg being validating during the interview), practical (eg offering breaks if the interview process lasts more than half an hour) etc.
5. Before the interview
There should be:
- A recap on the purpose of the film, intended audience etc
- The opportunity for the interviewee to ask any questions, express any concerns and have these fully responded to
- A recap that the interviewee doesn’t need to answer any questions they’re not comfortable about and the chance for the interviewee to outline any particular areas that they don’t want to talk about.
- The more political/polemical/controversial/oppositional the context (eg Today programme or ECT rather than Mental Health Practice or being kindly to patients), the more important it is for interviewee to have option of going over the (max 3) points they’d ideally like to make. (This one could spin off into all sorts of mini-workshops on presentational skills, best to avoid.)
- The more ‘personal’ the questions (eg triggering of painful feelings, emotional memories etc), the more important it is for the interviewee to have option of setting limits around what can be asked etc.
- Ideally the chance for a bit of informal bonding over a cup of tea or whatever
6. During the interview:
- A carefully selected and well-briefed journalist/director is unlikely to be clumsy let alone hectoring etc. But if the ‘media advisor’ or supporter has concerns, they should intervene along the lines of: “Sorry, but can I just check that you’re OK with answering that question, Harry? You don’t need to.”
7. After the interview
- Hardly needs saying but…. Thanking etc the interviewee, checking how they feel about the interview, any concerns etc
- Offer of cup of tea and chat
- Repeat offer of debrief
- Ensure transport home is neatly sorted and no hassle for interviewee
A Trust’s communications manager advises:
Mental health often gets a bad rap in the media. Stereotypes about the ‘mad and the bad’ make easy headlines but it doesn’t have to be like that. We need staff and patients to come forward and tell us their stories because the public and media are genuinely misinformed about this area of healthcare. And when there are good news stories about inpatient care, the staff involved feel great, patients feel confident about the quality of care and the public feel reassured about the hospital and those who work in and are supported by it.
Every mental health trust has a communications team who would like to hear from you and will take on responsibility for publicising your story, event or activity. Don’t be afraid to tell them what you are up to and don’t discount any idea before suggesting it to them. Finally, there is a lot of bad press about the Press. Don’t let that put you off. There are a lot of responsible journalists out there who would love to hear your story, as would their readers. Just make sure you speak with your communications team first, as they can help you with issues such as patient confidentiality.