Thursday, January 18, 2018

Is the Mainstream Media a Good Source of Information on Mental Health?

It's all relative, I suppose, but my answer to the question above would be "no."

Over the past 10 years, maybe longer, I've read numerous erroneous articles in mainstream media  sources on health and mental health. One of the reasons I started this blog was to offer a professional's viewpoint on complex issues relating to mental health. With a professional degree and license, and experience in the field for what is now more than 26 years, I am an expert. Why don't mainstream media sources hire experts to report on health issues? Occasionally they do--for example, CNN  employed Sanjay Gupta, a surgeon, to do health-related reporting for a number of years. However, even a doctor isn't necessarily qualified to discuss every specialized area of healthcare.

Good reporters diligently seek out experts for commentary and quotes. However, without professional training, even an intelligent lay reporter, and the reporter's editors, may not be able to understand or evaluate sources of complex information. This is a problem many media outlets don't want to address, probably because paying staff who also have professional degrees might require a larger budget.

Here are some examples of inaccurate or incomplete mental health reporting in the mainstream media:

A couple of days ago, The New York Times published a news feature about disparities in opioid addiction treatment that appear to fall along racial and income lines. The reporter found that lower income and black and Hispanic patients tended to go to methadone programs, while higher income, white patients were more likely to see private doctors and receive suboxone treatment. The implication was that rich white people receive better treatment. However, a  careful reading of the entire article revealed that some patients preferred methadone and that methadone programs offer social services that private doctors prescribing suboxone usually don't. The main drawback of methadone programs, revealed by a close reading of the article, is that they often require daily or twice weekly visits, which is time-consuming. But the fact that a treatment is time-consuming does not mean that it is worse or less effective. It may mean the opposite. I wonder how many readers took the time to ponder this, and how many persons glanced at the headline and felt rage at what they assumed was racial injustice? This type of journalism fans the flames of division in our society.

Moreover, in my experience as an addictions counselor, the 12-step program--an abstinence-based program that is free and has no side effects--has helped tens of thousands or maybe millions of people worldwide recover from addiction. The Times's article didn't mention these programs, and I wondered if the reporter thought that 12-step programs are only for alcoholics. The reporter interviewed MDs, but didn't appear to have interviewed non-medical addiction counselors. Did he even understand that such persons exist? Or perhaps he thought their opinions wouldn't be as credible as those of MDs?  I even wondered if the reporter was given a task by an editor to write about discrimination in treatment, and found the facts to fit the prescribed story.

Sometimes The New York Times has printed essays by a writer named Daphne Merkin. In one very long negative essay on psychotherapy, "My Life in Therapy,"  she revealed that she has been a patient in psychotherapy for decades. Ms. Merkin is not a mental health professional. She complained about the lack of efficacy of her treatment but also revealed that she had been confused about how to participate in treatment. If someone has been a patient for decades, this would indicate a chronic condition, and all mental health problems to some degree involve distorted perceptions. In addition, the fact that someone would have an important question about treatment but be unable or unwilling to voice and discuss it with their therapist might raise the possibility that there is something wrong with this person, and then there's the question of why someone would continue in treatment that is not helping her.  Why publish such an article, a lengthy first person diatribe from someone who has no expertise in the subject but some sort of personal grudge?  Curiously, the Times recently gave Ms. Merkin a platform to critique the "#MeToo"  movement, an assignment that should have been given to an established, credible feminist author. Apparently, as long as someone is a "writer" they are allowed to expound on any subject, regardless of whether the person has expertise, scholarship or judgment.

But the most most ridiculous example I can think of from The New York Times was an article  a few years ago about the lack of male psychotherapists. This is a serious issue, as some patients might do better with male therapists. But the writer Benedict Carey commented that one problem for a female therapist might be not understanding that her male patient's participation in a bar fight was just part of a fun night out. I've had many male patients, and one was stabbed in a bar fight. He almost died, and it wasn't a fun night out. Does anyone really enjoy being beaten up or stabbed? Surely, glee in violence cannot be the reason we need male psychotherapists.

I started this blog post with the intention of using examples from across the media, but the post has gotten long using just examples from The New York Times. Maybe the problem is even worse than I thought.










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