Monthly Archives: March 2011

Reading ‘The Sun’ is bad for mental health: Why negative or shocking headlines are a hindrance to helping people.

Ok so this Blog title was a bit sensationalist, but it was meant in an ironic way.

I’ve just been to a seminar by former Guardian journalist Mary O’Hara, who has teamed up with researchers from the University of California, Berkeley to investigate how mental health is reported in the UK and US press now and in the past. Some of the results are no surprise, but some were quite shocking and show we have a long way to go before issues of mental health lose their stigma in society.

More specifically in relation to my rather ‘sensationalist’ title, it seems that in the UK there is a big difference between that which is reported in the tabloids and that in the broadsheets (no surprises there). Broadsheets were more likely to report about mental health in a positive tone than in a negative one, and positive or neutral reporting was more common overall in broadsheets with no ‘sensationalist’ messages; in comparison the tabloids reported much more negative and sensationalist tones within articles. The same trend goes for the headlines, where a more positive/neutral tone was found in broadsheets compared to tabloids.

Tabloid Headline: PSYCHO CABBIES RAMPAGE ON CCTV; negative and sensationalist language in the Media is doing nothing to remove the stigma from mental health conditions

This is a big worry for mental health awareness campaigners hoping to reduce the negative stigma associated with mental health (such as the mental health charity Mind) , due to the many more people reading Tabloids than Broadsheets. There are guidelines in place for the UK media with an aim to prevent such information being presented in an incorrect light, however as Mary highlighted in her presentation today it is by no means compulsory in the news room to attend meetings regarding such issues, and often they are overlooked during the editing process. As we are now in an age where more instant publishing on blogs, websites and even Twitter are possible, is there a worry that there will be even less adherence to such guidelines. The presence of stigma still in the media will only prevent people from seeking help when it is needed if mental health issues are presented in a negative light.

Even more worrying was the statistic that only 8 of the 151 articles regarding mental health (published in 1985, 1995 and 2009) were analysed by the study provided contact details to helpful organisations such as the Samaritans, and these were all in 2009. This could further dissuade people from seeking help when they are in distress. In relation to my previous blog (‘What is ‘Normal’) the stigma attached to mental health issues is going to continue to make people feel that they are ‘abnormal’ in the eyes of the general public.

My review of the research and presentation is merely scratching the surface, so I urge people to read her articles and watch the presentation yourself by using the links below. The research is due to be published later this year so keep a look out!


What is ‘normal’?

Normality- ‘being within certain limits that define the range of normal functioning’.

In the psychological and psychiatric domain this concept has been the topic of much debate in recent years, especially when related to changing definitions in the DSM IV.  When does just being sad for a while become ‘depression’ (DSM definition: depressed mood most of the day, nearly every day, for 2 weeks alongside two other symptoms) and why can we only suffer from the completely normal act of bereavement for 2 months (The symptoms are not better accounted for by Bereavement, i.e., after the loss of a loved one, the symptoms persist for longer than 2 months) before it becomes ‘abnormal’?

‘Normality’ causes a problem for psychiatric research because when looking at a clinical population ‘controls’ should be anyone without the disorder you are investigating, however this is often not the case and we tend to study ‘hyper-normal’ people, with no history of Any mental health problems. This is a problem because one in four of us will suffer from a mental health problem in our lifetimes, therefore making it a lot more ‘normal’ than many people realise. So when investigating how often a particular symptom is present in the ‘normal, healthy population’ we are potentially lessening the prevalence of experiences from the healthy population by poor sampling methods.

This is discussed nicely in the following paper by Schwartz and Susser.

S. Schwartz and E. Susser The use of well controls: an unhealthy practice in psychiatric research. Psychological Medicine, 2010

Realistically people should slot into one category or another. For example in a Psychosis study you could either be classed as a patient ‘one who has suffered a psychotic symptom that is clinically significant’ or you can be a control ‘one who has NOT suffered from a psychotic symptom’.

Hopefully research in the future will go more by this way of thinking to get a better idea of the ‘general population’.



Research and Rock stars

The Event: I just had a really exciting and unexpected intellectual conversation: In a very roundabout way (involving polite chitchat about a friends new PhD venture) I got onto the topic of Music Psychology, more specifically Daniel Levitin. This may make it sound more exciting than it actually was, but it was nice to have a senior colleague actually listen to what, in relative terms, a simple research worker had to say.

The Back-story: As a lowly undergraduate trying to come up with an interesting and individual dissertation topic I asked myself ‘What am I interested in?’. Our set syllabus had yet to inspire me so I decided to think outside of the box. I came up with the broad topic of ‘Music’ and plugged it into Google Scholar. What came back to me was the beginning of a slight love affair with the world of Music Psychology and Neuroscience (and a really well received Dissertation to boot).

Back to the Event: I start explaining how Daniel Levitin’s published books and then his papers really caught my interest (and helped with my dissertation), when my other colleague then pipes up with ‘Oh yeah he’s really big in McGill, I could help you meet him if you ever came to Canada’. For me this is like a young girl being told she can meet her favourite Rock Star (there may have been a squeal of excitement somewhere as well). So we got onto chatting about his work and what we found interesting, and it was one of the most engaging conversations I’ve had at work, and was nothing to do with a project I’m currently working on!…it also highlighted that I am definitely made for a career in research, as I’m clearly in touch with my inner nerd. I currently work in Psychosis Research, and though I find it very interesting to investigate, this experience has made me realise I can enjoy Psychology and its endeavours from the back seat, as well as getting stuck in with the active research.

The Take Home Point: Find topics that interest you outside of your active research area to keep your minds engaged, and not boxed into one corner of thinking, so to speak.  Early in your research career its best not to pigeonhole yourself/topic of interest…and its nice to have some knowledge of something outside of your project to impress people with now and then!

You can find Daniel Levitin’s work at any of the links below.