01 -Who said that? A look at media’s dialogue around mental health

Leunig Mental Health Week
Michael Leunig’s cartoon in response to Mental Health Week [Leunig 2015] features a person seeking help from two ducks and a bird. The use of these animals may be a reference to the colloquial term ‘quack’, “A person who dishonestly claims to have special knowledge and skill in some field, typically medicine” [Oxford Dictionaries 2016]. Thus Leunig is potentially commenting on the inadequate services in place for individuals struggling with their mental health.
In preparation for this subject, Socially Responsive Design, I sought to gain as broad an understanding of the current discussion surrounding mental health as possible. Of the dozens of articles I have read, here follows a brief analysis of the few that particularly caught my attention.

 

‘The global community is failing to address mental health’

by Patel, P. & Soudi, L. 2016

The two authors of this article both have strong links to the medical and mental health professions. Laila Soudi work at Stanford University School of Medicine as a researcher, whilst also filling the role of director of mental health at the Syrian American Medical Society. Vikram Patel is the co-founder of Sangath; a not-for-profit health oriented organisation, as well as being the Wellcome Trust principal research fellow at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine. Together, these professionals have written several articles for The Guardian focusing on humanitarian world news. The background of these individuals in medicine does add some authority to their writing.

I believe an expert can be understood as an individual who has devoted a significant amount of time to the study or contribution of the topic upon which they are commenting. The term expert does imply a particularly high standard and depth of knowledge. By this standard, I would consider Soudi and Patel to have a sound understanding and valid perspective on the impacts and importance of mental health.

This article has a basis in fact and expounds upon the potential impact of the lack of assistance to those most in need. It does not contain a great amount of specific detail or examples, but seeks to generally convey the presence of a problem in how the international community ignores the mental health of refugees.

The strongest opinion expressed in this article is the need to be “actively working to normalise” the situations of these displaced populations. Soudi and Patel believe that by integrating refugees into society, through work and education, their mental health will be better for it.

‘The importance of precision medicine in mental health’

by Utley, T. 2016

Tori Utley is an entrepreneur and addiction counsellor, giving her insight into the world of mental health issues and expertise on the impacts of addiction. Having written several topical articles for Forbes in the past, this opinion piece is likely derived from her background working with the Department of Psychiatry and Psychology.

The article focuses on the concept of precision medicine, and in her opinion, the crucial role development of such practices will have on the treatment of mental health issues. The article is not used to inform the reader of various facts and statistics relating to the prevalence of mental illness in society or the quantity of medications prescribed. Instead she focuses on the complex nature of mental illness and how new techniques are greatly needed. I would agree with Utley, in that she seems discontent with the current generalised forms of treatment available to the mentally ill. It is also heartening to read a person not only mention, but lament the continued presence of stigma and shame in association with mental health.

This is not the first article to address the inappropriateness of a ‘one-size fits all’ approach to mental health treatment. From my initial research, Utley is not the only person drawing attention to the need of society to value the importance of mental health in our daily lives. Nor is she alone in believing that the way forward is to forego generalisations and focus upon the specific needs of the individual.

 

‘Why ‘big parma’ stopped searching for the next Prozac’

by Duncan, P. & O’Hara, M. 2016

Mary O’Hara is a social affairs writer, with published works beyond the newspaper, while Pamela Duncan is a data journalist with The Guardian. Combining these disciplines has generated an article that is primarily editorial in tone with a selection of statistics interspersed to emphasis certain points.

To further promote the relevance and reliability of their arguments, other industry professionals – from professors and psychiatrists to market researchers – are consulted for their opinions and understandings. There is a sense throughout that the article is actively trying to engage a broader audience by avoiding overly scientific or complicated language. The language is considerably more relaxed than I expected of an article discussing mental health and medicine.

O’Hara and Duncan use this article to educate their audience of the current position of psychiatric drug development, beginning on why many pharmaceutical companies have chosen to halt their research, whilst others are looking into new options. A sense of urgency for new options is promoted by the frequent reference to statistics that display a rise in use of antidepressants in many countries.

This article isn’t overly opinionated in tone primarily because of its reliance on the corroborating statements from medical and industry professionals. This referencing of several likeminded experts lends an authority to the expounding on the state of drug development.

‘Mental health research ‘being short-changed’, academics claim’

by Matthews, D. 2016

David Matthews is a reporter who since joining Times Higher Education in 2011 has covered research and science, along with business, university and other forms of higher education. His background in covering similar topics, along with referencing several academics, adds weight to his opinions, if not expertise on the topic matter.

This article strongly proposes the idea that physical disorders are still held to higher importance than mental illness. He has highlighted this imbalance through comparing the categorisation of mental versus physical health services, which were then used to determine funding distribution. Whilst figures are not provided for the specific amounts allocated, several university principals and directors are quoted discussing the impact on their funding. The article does create a strong argument for the existence of an unjustifiable imbalance that further supports the perceived superiority and validity of physical health, at least so far as the United Kingdom is concerned.

The impact of stigma is not mentioned here. Rather the focus is purely on a perceived unjust comparison of expenses, from which funding has been based. The impact of such a reduction in funding for several research facilities and universities is not mentioned. It can however be inferred that new approaches to treatment and more individualised options will be further away for those suffering from mental illness.

‘From ketamine to cupboard therapy: the future of mental health treatment’

by Lyons, K. 2016

At The Guardian, Kate Lyons works on the special projects desk, giving her extensive experience covering a myriad of topics for the newspaper. I wouldn’t consider her an expert on the topic, impact or treatment of mental illness. For this article however, expertise is not required. As a journalist she is facilitating the increase of awareness into innovations in mental health treatments. It is significant that she does not appear to display any bias towards mental illness or the treatments discussed. By remaining objective, the primary focus of the article falls where necessary, on the work being done to help individuals who feel isolated or helpless.

There is no definitive conclusion to this article. It merely sections and describes four different approaches to mental health treatment. There aren’t any provocative statements or calls to action. Lyons has clearly been given a topic to research and deliver an explanation to the newspaper’s audience.

The lack of stigma or judgment in this article is particularly encouraging. To have the idea of receiving treatment not be shamed or presented weak is incredibly important. Furthermore, Lyons places no emphasis on the concept of a more suitable or acceptable method of treatment. The overriding sense is that people in need of help should not feel limited simply to pharmaceutical options.

‘Mental health problems exposed by AJ Student Survey 2016’

by Braidwood, E. & Waite, R. 2016

What primarily interested me about this article was the discussion of the direct linkage between education pressures and mental illness. Here mental health problems aren’t implied to only relate to extreme cases of depression, schizophrenia or paranoia, but focuses instead on the everyday anxieties that build up and contribute to larger issues.

Waite and Braidwood are both experienced news journalists, implying their expertise in interpreting research and information, if not in the issues of mental health itself. The purpose of this article is to interpret the data generated by the 2016 Architects Journal Student Survey. Many statistics and notes from the students are utilised to further convey the argument that the current approach to architecture education is unhealthy and in need of an overhaul. The publication of this article is in direct response to the release of the survey’s results. Waite and Braidwood’s opinions are clear throughout, stating that under the current structure, university’s are not setting up students in the United Kingdom to be successful in their future professional lives. The idea of success is conveyed as being defined by more than income or renown, but also a well-balanced and content life.

‘Agencies ‘ill-equipped’ to detect attackers with mental health issues’

by Reuters 2016

The article is listed as having been written by the international news agency Reuters. Without a specific author attached to the article it becomes different to dissect bias or motivation involved in its conception. The purpose of the article is to draw attention to the supposed clear links between mental illness and radicalisation, with specific reference to the recent events in Europe and the U.S. of individuals with previous histories of illness committing mass-shootings.

Using language such as “exposed a gap” [Reuters 2016] whilst referring to extremists and mass killings is incredibly telling. Statements follow that, “The attacks have a common theme of being carried out by actors with an apparent history of mental illness – but few if any direct links to extremist groups, the officials told Reuters.” It is of my opinion that such language is unbelievably inflammatory and ignorant. No references to scholarly research are made to justify the implication of causal links between mental illness and extremism. Nor is there any clarification of the definition of mental illness or which forms may lead to such an individual being incited to “engage in violence” [Reuters 2016]. The fact that such traumatic events as the killings at Baton Rouge, Nice and Munich, can be linked to merely an “apparent history of mental illness” [Reuters 2016] only further emphasises the prevalence of stigma surrounding mental health in today’s society.

Positions worth investigating further:

Isolating factors of mental illness — How even now, after all the developments society has made in regards to the identification and treatment of mental health problems, there continues to be high levels of shame and pervasive stigmas surrounding its presence in society. The existence of such automatic responses to mental illness continues to be a great hindrance in its treatment. People will not seek help or be open about their struggles if they are afraid of judgmental or otherwise negative reactions of others.

Medical treatment options (limits and innovations) — As scientists and medical practitioners garner a greater understanding of the brain, its functions, limitations and processes, a broadening in understanding of its impacts on the individual are also increased. The complexity of the brain has only recently begun to be comprehended, meaning that those illnesses derived from its malfunctioning are also only recently being adequately described and quantified. The more we know, the more effective treatments can be developed to assist the individual in tackling mental health issues.

Regional services — When it comes to health services in regional areas, particularly in a nation as vast as Australia, many communities miss out on the quality and opportunity of larger populaces. It can be argued that isolated areas do not receive the education or the services they require in order to lead a truly healthy and balanced life.

Language of mental health — An analysis of the way in which people throughout society, on an individual to media endorsed level, discuss mental health. From reading dozens of media articles it has become clear that we as a society, both nationally and internationally, still struggle to speak openly, honestly and factually about mental health and all that its presence in our lives entails. Something that particularly struck me was the manner in which mental illness can so easily, and potentially unjustifiably, be linked to criminality and violence.

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References:

Braidwood, E. & Waite, R. 2016, ‘Mental health problems exposed by AJ Student Survey 2016’, Architects Journal, 28 July, viewed 31 July, <http://www.architectsjournal.co.uk/news/mental-health-problems-exposed-by-aj-student-survey-2016/10009173.article>

Duncan, P. & O’Hara, M. 2016, ‘Why ‘big parma’ stopped searching for the next Prozac’, The Guardian, 27 July, viewed 1 August, <https://www.theguardian.com/society/2016/jan/27/prozac-next-psychiatric-wonder-drug-research-medicine-mental-illness>

Matthews, D. 2016, ‘Mental health research ‘being short-changed’, academics claim’, Times Higher Education, 28 July, viewed 31 July, <https://www.timeshighereducation.com/news/mental-health-research-being-short-changed-academics-claim>

Leunig, M. 2015, ‘Mental Health Week’, Leunig, viewed 12 August 2016, <http://www.leunig.com.au/cartoons/recent-cartoons/490-mental-health-week?highlight=WyJoZWFsdGgiXQ==>

Lyons, K. 2016, ‘From ketamine to cupboard therapy: the future of mental health treatment’, The Guardian, 29 July, viewed 31 July, <https://www.theguardian.com/world/2016/jul/29/from-ketamine-to-cupboard-therapy-the-future-of-mental-health-treatment>

Oxford Dictionaries 2016, Oxford University Press, New York, viewed 14 August 2016, <http://www.oxforddictionaries.com/>

Patel, P. & Soudi, L. 2016, ‘The global community is failing to address mental health’, The Guardian, 25 July, viewed 1 August 2016, <https://www.theguardian.com/global-development-professionals-network/2016/jul/25/mental-health-development-refugees>

Reuters 2016, ‘Agencies ‘ill-equipped’ to detect attackers with mental health issues’, SBS News, 24 July, viewed 1 August 2016, <http://www.sbs.com.au/news/article/2016/07/24/agencies-ill-equipped-detect-attackers-mental-health-issues>

Utley, T. 2016, ‘The importance of precision medicine in mental health’, Forbes, 27 July, viewed 31 July, <http://www.forbes.com/sites/toriutley/2016/07/27/the-importance-of-precision-medicine-in-mental-health/#51c261a65e92>

 

– Alexandra Macoustra

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