Inside England’s mental health units

Country/area: United Kingdom

Organisation: none

Organisation size: Small

Publication date: 14/7/2021

Credit: Vanessa Fillis

Biography: My name is Vanessa Fillis. During my MA in data journalism that I have successfully completed in September 2021 I have specialised in mental health reporting.

I strive to use data to shine a light on underreported topics, to investigate NHS mental health services and to report on them fair and balanced. I often use the FOIA to obtain original data.

Currently, I am a services intern at Flourish and a freelance journalist.

Project description:

The Covid-19 pandemic has exacerbated pressures on mental health services, with referrals and contacts at their highest. Due to this enhanced pressure, there is a need for scrutinization of mental health services. To fulfil this, I have analysed data, created visualisations and written stories and newsletters around mental illness with the aim to raise awareness and destigmatise mental illness. I achieved this through responsible reporting based on thorough research, involving case studies and professionals, and incorporating data and constructive journalism. The stories were based on exclusive data from FOI requests and official data releases, interviews with vulnerable sources, industry professionals and charities.

Impact reached:

Through responsible reporting, I was able to raise awareness for issues around mental illness and challenge existing attitudes. I was also shining a light on often underreported topics most readers would never know about.

Considering the sources’ vulnerability and the risk of mental illness stigma was crucial. Studies on media coverage of mental health and illness show that the reporting is often stigmatising and negative due to disproportionately focusing on factors such as danger, crime, and violence. This is why I involved people with mental illness in my news stories as this is one way to reduce stigma and to show individual stories behind the data. But at the same time this was one of the main challenges (see answer to other question).

Scrutinising mental health service providers is important to uncover issues that are negatively impacting patients. Reporting on them raised awareness and highlighted the potential of improving the situation. Incorporating data and a range of voices made my reporting, although on negative issues, realistic, accurate, informative and balanced – attributes contributing to destigmatising mental illness.

To publish more positive and solution-focused stories, I incorporated constructive journalism to discuss possible solutions or promising aspects for a complex social problem. I asked service users and industry professionals about what solutions they think are needed to improve mental health services.

In other articles, I included statements from trusts that were positively responding to a situation or featured a charity that was functioning as a role model in transforming mental health wards. The latter illustrating an approach to positively impact mental health wards instead of simply highlighting their bad state.

Techniques/technologies used:

I used the Freedom of Information Act to gather exclusive data. In total I sent six different requests to NHS mental health trusts in England. I used my organisational and project management skills to keep track of the requests.

After obtaining data, I analysed the data using R and Google Sheets. Using a programming language such as R allowed me to quickly perform analyses and thereby save time.

Interactive and engaging data visualisations offer the chance for users to participate in the narrative. I visualised the data using Flourish and a range of their templates.

I used scrollytelling to update charts and highlight bars by scrolling. Thereby, I was able to capture the audience’s attention and point them to what is important.

Due to its characteristics, scrollytelling can also be used to communicate uncertainty by highlighting shortfalls in the data and focusing the readers’ attention on this aspect. This was relevant when reporting on hospital leave data obtained through FOI. Due to trusts recording the patients’ leave differently, there were inaccuracies. To give a correct impression of the characteristics of the data, I communicated the uncertainty using colours in combination with text in the scrolly section and text in an about-the-data-box.

To heighten the understanding of the visualisations, I used annotations to explicitly emphasize key takeaways and included definitions of specialist terms. Further, I made sure to give the readers access to the data so that they can judge its uncertainty themselves.

I believe that data stories can be effective across different channels and platforms. Therefore, I distributed content across different channels: through a newsletter, on Instagram and Twitter, on a website, and in audio two-ways.

What was the hardest part of this project?

Obtaining newsworthy information through FOIs was difficult due to long time limits and administrative silence. Trusts were often storing the data differently or not adhering to deadlines. This meant that obtaining the requested information often took substantially longer than the legally prescribed 20 working days. Some trusts did not reply at all or cited exemptions. Although I requested internal reviews, the time it takes to get a reply can make it incompatible with a tight deadline.

It was important to me to have the experiences of service users in my articles as I believe people should be at the centre of data stories. However, finding case studies was difficult.
Many were hesitant about coming forward or wanted to stay anonymous as they were worried that speaking up about the care they received from NHS trusts would negatively impact the care they were still receiving.

I incorporated constructive journalism to discuss possible solutions or promising aspects. However, when reporting on the accessibility of mental health services, it was difficult to frame the story with a solution-oriented focus. While mental health professionals had ideas to improve services, they were greatly dependent on funding. I still included them in the article as they functioned as possible solutions to an inherently negative event.

What can others learn from this project?

From this project, other journalists can learn how to report on mental illness responsibly and without being stigmatising. Especially that service users should always be contacted to inform the reporting and to contribute to non-stigmatising reporting.

Reporting on mental health and mental illness is (most of the time) not something you quickly do. It requires time to get the right data, find case studies and build up trust with them. It also needs research and adhering to guidelines from charities. But, when done right, it can have a great positive impact.

Therefore I believe, from my reporting, other journalists can learn about the importance of reporting on mental health issues, especially scrutinising NHS mental health services.

When I was talking to service users and professionals, I often heard from them that things are unlikely to change and that the situation won’t improve.

This is why I believe we need to raise more awareness and report about possible solutions and ideas from industry professionals and service users.

There is a need for mental health reporting, especially considering the upcoming changes to the Mental Health Act, proposed funding, and the pandemic’s impact. Bringing in data is essential and can differentiate the reporting from others. For my research I have looked at a random sample of mental health articles. It showed that just over a third (35%) contained original data analysis and only one in ten (11%) had some form of data visualisation.

I believe that if there was more high-quality mental health reporting, we could decrease the stigma which in turn would lead to more people coming forward telling their stories. This in turn would have a bigger impact and improve mental health services in England – which is greatly needed.

Project links: