by Michael D. Anestis, Ph.D.
This is not a political forum and I'm definitely not looking to incite any sort of contentious conversation about political leanings. That being said, let me open this up by making clear that I am about as pro-free speech as an individual can get. Ok...that that's out of the way, I pose a bit of a dilemma:
In a country in which we believe that everyone is entitled to free speech, does the media have an obligation to filter out opinion pieces on mental health related topics that stray from the facts? In other words, would quality control that prevents people who are likely well-intentioned and intelligent but who do not to have a handle on the facts from being granted vast stage upon which to rant errouneously about topics that have legitimate life-or-death consequences for readers violate our basic First Ammendment rights? It's a tricky question, but I wonder whether the answer lies not in restricting the speech of such folks, but rather improving the ability for that speech to become a conversation (e.g., pieces that counter-balance opinions with facts, comment sections that are not closed after the first 15 comments).
Anyway, I raise this point in response to yet another horrific mental health article in the New York Times (click here to read the article) - a paper that, on the whole, I love, but which routinely enrages me with their willingness to continuously barrage their enormous readership with patently false information regarding mental illness and its treatment. Today, another in a long line of mental health articles written by somebody without any (to my knowledge) advanced degree in the field discussed the author's beliefs that:
- All psychotherapies can be uniformally grouped into the term "talk therapy"
- That psychotherapy involves lying on a couch and discussing feelings
- That psychotherapy is no longer common
- And here's the most absurd of them all: that creating writing seminars are a suitable replacement for psychotherapy
This kind of thinking, while I'm sure well-intentioned and based on compelling anecdotes, is just remarkable in its level of absurdity. It's not just that stuff like this is wrong: it is (1) dangerous and (2) unethical. Both the danger and the lack of ethics stem from the fact that people in need of help can read this sort of drivel and become convinced that creative writing is, in fact, the best solution for their mental illness. In doing so, they will have been steered away from effective care, potentially putting their lives in danger. If somebody steered people away from effective care for cancer or any other physical ailment, there would be an outcry about the snake oil salesmen trying to lure vulnerable people into false hope when real hope already exists. When it happens with mental illness, however, many people seem to hold onto a strange belief that it is suddenly okay.
This is a problem and the New York Times needs to look in the mirror and reconsider it's values when it comes to publishing information on mental health. These aren't philosophical matters of little consequence. These are issues battled daily by scientists and which have a direct impact on the life (and death) of countless individuals.
Dr. Mike Anestis is an incoming Assistant Professor in the Department of Psychology at the University of Southern Mississippi