When Media Lies Hurt: The Destructive Impact of Sloppy Journalism on Real People

(Originally published in USA Today Magazine, July 2016. A few updates were made for reposting to this blog)

It’s safe to say that most people have long since given up on the idea of unquestioning trust for the media. Walter Cronkite died in 2009. Despite vague mistrust, people are vulnerable to the effect that repeatedly hearing things has. Hearing something over and over engrains it in our brains, even if it’s not true. The repeated lie tends to rise to the top when a related topic comes up. This is one reason so many people believe that, for example, violent crime is up all over the country (it’s not) or that we know for sure exactly what schizophrenia is, or what it’s caused by (we don’t).

As a psychotherapist, I see the pain that sloppy journalism creates for real people on a regular basis. I don’t mean transient worry; I mean the possibility of a lifetime of unnecessary anguish inflicted upon people who believe that the information hurled at them by media must be based in truth.

Three examples will suffice to illustrate; you can no doubt generate plenty of examples of your own.

Media Misrepresentation: People considering suicide always give clues about their intention, and thus friends and family have an opportunity to see it coming and intervene.

According to A. Dadoly in the Harvard Health Newsletter (2011), professional estimates are that 30-80% of suicides are impulsive acts, with little or no planning beyond the immediacy of the moment. That means family members could usually not have read the signs, and could not possibly have intervened. Yet, most people believe, because they’ve been told repeatedly, that warning signs are just about always there and thus are tormented with guilt and self-reproach for failing to see something that was, tragically, probably not there.

Media Misrepresentation: Depression is a medical illness that is a lifelong condition. You’ll be on medication forever because there is something wrong with your brain.

The truth is, depression, or “major depressive disorder,” as it is currently labeled, is a construct. It is diagnosed off a checklist of symptoms. Meet enough of the symptoms for a two-week period of time and, bingo, you can be diagnosed, whether that sadness, poor sleep, lack of energy, poor concentration, etc., is due to grief because someone you love has died, or to some other life circumstance…or, perhaps, something medical. Some research indicates that most cases of depression will improve within 7 weeks whether you do anything to treat it or not. Plenty of evidence shows that lifestyle changes such as proper sleep, diet and exercise, plus social supports and a bit of emotional support via therapy, will create improvement in less time and leave you more resilient the next time life throws you a challenge (which, of course, it will). You can find a wealth of scientific research as well as specific steps to apply that research to real life in Stephen Ilardi, MD, Ph.D.’s wonderful 2009 book, The Depression Cure. There’s plenty of other research out there, of course, but for busy readers, Dr. Ilardi has done a masterful job of tying together many researchers’ work and working out a useful process.

Yet millions of people have been sold the lie that their symptoms are evidence of a brain disorder that requires lifelong medication. The medications change the brain, cause all sorts of unpleasant side effects, such as weight gain, loss of sexual interest and/or function, and general apathy towards others, and often cause terrible withdrawal symptoms. They also carry a risk for impulsive acts of self-harm, including suicide, and violence against others. Almost every adolescent and young adult mass killer in the US in the past couple of decades, with the exception of avowed Islamist terrorists, has been on one or more psychiatric drugs, including many antidepressants.

Do these medications help some people? Apparently so, according to them and their doctors. That does not, however, prove that everyone who is sad for more than two weeks has an incurable but manageable brain disease and is “mentally ill.”

Media Misrepresentation: Your gay son or daughter is going to burn in hell just because he/she is LGBT.

This lie is a criticism of many religions, and recently has been part of the background of a television show called “The Real O’Neals.” One part of the plot involves a gay young man whose supposedly Catholic mother is consumed with despair because “her religion teaches her that her son is going to burn in hell because he is gay.” That’s a paraphrase from interviews I’ve read with a star of the show. I have seen many families suffer under this belief. Parents are alienated from their children; children believe that their parents are condemning them; parents and children alike reject their faith. I will address this from my Catholic perspective; you can do the homework on your faith.

The Catholic Church has an international apostolate (a fancy term for an approved special ministry) called Courage, focused entirely on providing spiritual, emotional and social support for LGBT Catholics. Its intention is not to “make them straight,” but to help them live Catholic lives with the orientation they experience. The official Catechism of the Catholic Church isn’t exactly politically correct: like the psychiatrists of just one generation ago, it considers homosexual behavior disordered – but you could say Catholicism (and all orthodox Christianity) says about the same about any sexual activity outside of marriage.

However, the Catechism of the Catholic Church also says: (paragraph 2358):

The number of men and women who have deep-seated homosexual tendencies is not negligible…They must be accepted with respect, compassion and sensitivity. Every sign of unjust discrimination in their regard should be avoided. These persons are called to fulfill God’s will in their lives and, if they are Christians, to unite to the sacrifice of the Lord’s Cross the difficulties they may encounter… (that “uniting to the sacrifice of the Lord’s Cross, is of course, what all Catholics do when, faced with challenges, we talk about “offering it up” – this is not a unique imposition upon GLBT persons).

Paragraph 2359 ends with, “They can and should gradually and resolutely approach Christian perfection.” Hmmm. No ineluctable path to hell and damnation there.

One can, however, imagine the pain of a parent who imagines their child is immediately rejected by God. One wishes they were bold enough to seek right guidance.

Our Responsibility

It’s easy, of course, to blame the media. Journalists go to college and seem to take pride in getting the “real story,” or whatever they imagine they’re doing. So why don’t they do their homework? Why present the easy, available tale? Psychologically, they appear to indulge in confirmation bias: the tendency to seek out and focus on things that verify what they already “know.” We consumers of media need to check the facts.

Bad information creates pain and suffering. Don’t assume what you read is the whole truth. Do your research, and turn to people who might have access to information you don’t have. Someone’s peace of mind may be at stake.

Dr. Lori Puterbaugh, LMHC, LMFT, NCC

© 2016

Posts are for information and entertainment purposes only and should not be construed to be therapeutic advice. If you are in need of mental health assistance, please contact a licensed professional in your area.

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Way 28/Day 28: Make it a great year: Corral those bup-ponies.

Oh, admit it.

You’ve got bup-ponies.

You don’t think so?

Ask a little kid about why they did something wrong. You’ll hear things like,

“Yeah, bup-pony, he hit me first.”

“Bup-pony, she started it.”

“Bup-pony, it’s too hard to (clean my room, do my homework, feed the cat, etc.).”

Well, grownups have bup-ponies but we think ours are all very sensible and realistic, not like those imaginary bup-ponies that kids have. We have reasons, not excuses; we are rational, not defensive…Bup-pony, sometimes our reasons are not as powerful as we imagine. They are fears and excuses playing dress-up.

So make it a great year; get a lasso on those bup-ponies.

Dr. Lori Puterbaugh

© 2016

Posts are for information and entertainment purposes only and should not be construed to be therapeutic advice. If you are in need of mental health assistance, please contact a licensed professional in your area.

Way 26/Day 26: Make it a great year: Live “as if”

How many people do you know who are postponing what they supposedly want to do/be until some mystical, mythical event has transpired, or a change has happened?

They’ll get in shape…once they start smoking.

They’ll get along better as a family…once the last kid is through those messy teen years.

They’ll get back to reading/art/gardening when…something.

They’ll be able to take better care of themselves when the job/relationship/weather cooperates.

…and we all know that when the weather cooperates or the teenager grows up and goes to college, there will be some new reason that makes perfectly good sense, for why the couple barely speak or the smoking continues or the brain hasn’t been challenged by a new author in ten years.

Make it a great year by living as if:

Today, act as if your family gets along.

Today, act as if you are already taking better care of yourself.

Today, act as if you are actually preparing for some major change by doing one concrete, specific thing that gets you closer to that goal.

Make it a great day. Do that 366 times and you have a great (leap) year.

Dr. Lori Puterbaugh

© 2016

Posts are for information and entertainment purposes only and should not be construed to be therapeutic advice. If you are in need of mental health assistance, please contact a licensed professional in your area.

Way 18/Day 18: Realize that sometimes YOU know better

In the film Love and Mercy, based on portions of Beach Boy Brian Wilson’s life, it is apparent that early in the Beach Boys’ success, when the stress of performing, producing, writing – and a history of abuse – were weighing heavily on Brian, that he knew what he needed. He knew and struggled to express to those around him that he needed to pull back – to reduce external stressors and focus on what was most critical. The pressures from others – his family, investors, hangers-on, his manipulative and exploitative father, and, later, the unethical therapist who became a sort of Svengali/mooch, all professed to “know better” what he needed – led to increasingly intense psychological suffering.

(I don’t know how accurately the film represents any of the characters and am describing the characters as portrayed in Love and Mercy, not on the real people)

Sometimes we know better than other people. It’s hard to discern, sometimes, the voices of those who really have our best interest at heart and those who have their own agendas foremost. Too, some people are well-intentioned and, knowing what would be best for them, presume that it must also be best for others.

Seek wise guidance. Perhaps the greatness of the year comes from careful discernment on what is actually right for you.

Dr. Lori Puterbaugh

© 2016

Posts are for information and entertainment purposes only and should not be construed to be therapeutic advice. If you are in need of mental health assistance, please contact a licensed professional in your area.

Lodge Act Soldiers

This piece was originally published in USA Today Magazine, May 2015.

The Lodge Act Soldiers:

The Mural and the Portrait

 

Sometimes, the enemy of my enemy is not my friend. There are many times when, at best, the enemy of my enemy is a useful but dangerous tool: geopolitics on a razor’s edge, perhaps. This often is the case at the macro level. At other times, perhaps more often on a micro level, the enemy of my enemy is indeed a loyal friend.

In 1945, when World War II ended, it was expected that peace would prevail: in the US, the “boys” came home. In Europe, the prison camps were flung open, British children were sent home to London (if homes and parents were still there), and the Marshall Plan was implemented to show mercy and bring the vanquished back from the medieval stage to which they’d been bombed. There was not, however, then as in the oh-so-recent past, to be “peace in our time.” Russia had succeeded in encroaching far into Europe and was in no hurry to surrender those advances. Far from peace, there was instead a very apparent intention to pick up where Hitler had failed, spreading a mantle of totalitarian slavery wherever feasible.

March, 1946: Sir Winston Churchill spoke unapologetically about the dire threat to peace and liberty that was the Soviet Union, unsheathing a previously rarely-used phrase – the Iron Curtain – to summarize its implacable, impenetrable seal against freedom. Nations that ostensibly had freedom were punished for daring to reject communism. A striking example of this, just two years after Churchill’s Iron Curtain speech, was the punishment of West Berlin by the Soviets known as the Berlin Blockade. In this case, the US and Great Britain responded in force, first via small efforts – Operation Plainfare and Operation Little Vittals, and then with a months-long show of force and generosity via an airlift that was, as General Tunner had intended, “…on a beat as constant as a jungle drum.” The relentless rhythm came at a price of military and civilian lives, but ended in a rare and predictably graceless Soviet backtracking…for the time being. Communist states accept rejection with all the irrational fury of a woman scorned, and with a sociopath’s capacity to wait, endlessly, for the opportunity for revenge.

It was clear to anyone paying attention that the worldwide vision of communism held by the Russians was as malignant as the state-based socialism of Nazi Germany, and the urgency to fight the toxic tentacles on one hand drew up in sharp contrast to war-weariness and distrust of anything associated with the enemy on the other. Something needed to be done, despite the desperate drive to maintain a buoyant mood at home and the desire to put war and its ugliness far behind us.

August, 2014: a slim, short obituary appears in the local papers, with a small photo, apparently cut from a larger one, of a soldier’s face: all planes and angles, alert, but with the slightest pull of humor in the mouth. This is MSgt. Jan Janosik of the US Army special forces, and he passed away at home, at age 82, following a long military career (22 years), and a subsequent career with the Hillsborough County (FL) Sheriff’s department and then with the Florida Department of Corrections. He entered the US Army via the Lodge Act. Except for a listing of a few of his medals, and his wife, children and grandchildren, there is nothing else mentioned.

If Janosik had been killed while driving drunk the wrong way on an interstate, we would have known more about him; if he had been notorious for some dastardly deed, or perhaps a gold-hearted local philanthropist, a reporter would have given him a half-page write-up. As it was, and is, someone who merits the big write-up would have been uncomfortable with the spotlight, and an individual deserving of our regard and reflection appears in a tiny notice. Real soldiers are not attention-seekers, and Special Forces members are reserved about their work. They do not do what they do for applause. They seek to serve. In the case of a Lodge Act soldier, the desire to serve is for a love of freedom that surpasses anything else, and transmits itself into sacrifice for a country that is not one’s own.

June 1950: A much-neglected aspect of 20th century American history is the Lodge-Philbin Act, most often referred to simply as the Lodge Act, passed in June 1950. The Lodge Act permitted the recruitment of Eastern European nationals into a specialized fighting force, under the jurisdiction of the US Armed Forces, to fight the spread of communism during the Cold War. Although the Russians had been, ostensibly, an ally during WWII it was only due to a shared animus towards Germany, not actual shared values. Indeed, it did not take long to figure out that Russia was not happy returning to its own borders and to peace; instead, the mission to achieve worldwide socialism, rather than the nationalistic socialism of Hitler’s Germany, went into overdrive. Communism doesn’t tend to work out very well for the little person…and it does not work out well, as it turns out, for great people, either.

In 1951, 19-years-old Slovak Jan Janosik was working as a border guard on the Czechoslovakian/German border. He desperately wished to leave the control of the Communist state, but the price to his family for his defection would be grave. Yet they gave their blessing to his plan, and he and a friend were able to escape. In punishment for Jan’s defection, his family members were dispossessed of their property and sent into prison camps. A death sentence was placed on young Jan. Meanwhile, the two young friends were on the way to West Germany and freedom.

The strangulating grasp of Communism does not release easily, whether on a nation or on the individual. One day, having finally reached Berlin, they stood on a sidewalk, waiting to cross the street. A car pulled up, a window rolled partway down. The muzzle of a gun appeared, bullets flew, and the car sped off. When it was over in mere seconds, Jan was alive; his friend was not. Jan’s determination to achieve freedom, and to fight communism, was even more deeply etched.

The Lodge Act, with its offer of freedom and US citizenship, sounded like a dream: switch teams, spend five years and earn your freedom. It was not as easy as it sounds. The Act allowed only for a relatively small fighting force; Eisenhower was not in favor of “mercenaries,” recalling how poorly the integration of mercenaries had worked for the Roman Empire. The US Army could afford to be, and needed to be, very selective. The young men admitted under the Lodge Act were expected to be able to work within the enemy’s territory, to blend in and help bring down Communism from within its own cage. Someone with Janosik’s abilities (he spoke four languages; English became the fifth) and capacity to work and learn, was highly valued. The next challenge would be to learn English and become an American soldier.

A great many Lodge Act recruits were sent to Fort Devens, MA, for Army basic training as well as training in English and American culture. It was a combination boot camp and rapid acculturation into their newly chosen country. The USO helped out in many ways, including hosting the dances that were part of the introduction to American culture. It was at such a dance that young Janosik met Josie, a petite, bright-eyed Sicilian-American girl who came to the dance with a group of girlfriends. The girls regularly went to dances as a group; there was safety in numbers and it was good, wholesome fun. This dance was different: Jan and Josie each went home convinced they’d met their soulmates (her mother was skeptical). Jan and Josie married a year later.

“We didn’t really speak much of the same language when we met but we managed,” she says now, smiling. “When you want to, you make it work,” and her expressive, Sicilian shrug and graceful hand gestures underscore her words. The dancing that began at that USO event went on for years: jitterbug, waltz, polka – all types of dancing, all types of music. The passionate and playful dancing seems to contradict the no-nonsense, serious soldier and father, but the playful side slipped out again, as so often is the case, with his beloved grandchildren.

The next stage of life took them both away from Massachusetts. Janosik was assigned to Airborne training and volunteered for Special Forces training at Fort Bragg, NC. This fit the circumstances: the point of the Lodge Act was to recruit fit, bright, skilled young men who would be able to function within unconventional warfare. There were to be no routine duties once basic training and basic acculturation were completed.

So, the young newlyweds rented a small trailer off-base at the then-exorbitant price of $35/month and each coped with the culture shock of finding themselves in an environment markedly different from where they’d been. There were not a lot of Catholic girls from Massachusetts; there were not many Slovakian immigrants. Nevertheless, they made friends: the fiercely loyal friendships of military family life. Many significant events soon followed: Jan’s successfully passing the citizenship test, the birth of three children, and ongoing training and assignments to Special Forces teams. Josie Janosik recalls today the closeness of the families and their mutual support, as well as the obligation of the wives to be appropriately vague about their husbands’ work, of which they knew appropriately very little. As it is today, the military spouse who attempted to gain sympathy and attention via borrowing a glint of glamour from the husband’s dangerous work received the disapprobation of her peers. Even so, they were all in it together, and, at least for Josie and their children, Jan always came home. Not everyone was so fortunate, and in those sad cases, the close community gathered to provide care.

Recall that the Lodge Act required five years of service. By 1957, young Janosik had met the requirement. He continued to serve, finally ending his career after 22 years – a full 17 years beyond his required commitment. Almost half of Janosik’s service was performed as overseas assignments. He was not alone: other Lodge Act soldiers, notably Larry Thorne (born Lauri Torni in Finland) also served through the Viet Nam War.

The Lodge Act soldiers have had counterparts throughout history, but in the US wars from the mid-20th century through the current day, what was is sometimes mislabeled (or libeled?) as “irregular” warfare includes the imperative to involve the local population. At risk are not merely small territorial spats but world-changing battles between ideologies. Thus, for example, American soldiers in Laos and in Viet Nam were involved in close collaboration with local personnel, and it was through such a relationship that Janosik earned his treasured “Tiger Tooth” award from his Cambodian troops. Modern efforts during Operation Enduring Freedom and Operation Iraqi Freedom similarly engaged local populations in the effort.

It is undoubtedly a great challenge to sort out who, in the local population, may and may not be trusted and to what degree. On the home front, meanwhile, it has become increasingly difficult to enlist sufficient volunteers who are healthy and fit for service among US citizens. It is also difficult to find families that are encouraging of military service. The general resistance to either a military draft or mandatory national service in some other capacity was underscored by the repetitive proposals by Rep. Charles Rangel (Dem, NY) commencing in 2003 to reinstate such a draft or mandatory service – which he, and almost everyone else in Congress, regularly refused to support with an “aye” vote. It might hardly have mattered: some studies indicate as many as 75% of age-eligible young men in the US are not able to meet the standards. At least 29% are obese; many others have criminal records, psychiatric records (including the ubiquitous medications for that bugaboo of American boyhood, ADHD), large visible tattoos, and drug use histories and/or cannot score adequately on the basic entrance test, the Armed Services Vocational Aptitude Battery (ASVAB). A WWII draft panel would have been stymied by an effort in which 75% of those called up were 4-F. Of course, as the size of the military shrinks, recruiting efforts can become more discriminating. The selectivity of the military in regards to the Lodge Act soldiers has a modern parallel in the MAVNI recruits (Military Accessions Vital to the National Interest), in which highly educated (29% with masters’ degree or higher) and skilled US-resident foreign nationals are recruited into the US military.

The US Army was in a position to be discriminating when recruiting men under the Lodge Act. The efforts made by most applicants simply to present themselves as candidates were a test of intelligence, will, stamina and survival skills. Some journeyed hundreds of miles, on foot, while being pursued, and endured beatings, being jailed, and physical deprivations of various sorts just trying to apply. They were determined, earnest, and deadly serious. Yet any one of them could have been merely an agent for the Soviets, who had, after all, been indoctrinating their children to despise the West and its evil, abusive capitalist system from their earliest years. Perhaps some were, in fact, spies in the making, like sleeper-jihadists working alongside our military in present-day war zones.

Others were entirely sincere in their love of freedom, and these include M.Sgt. Jan Janosik, recipient of the Silver Star, Bronze Star, Air Medal, Purple Heart…and the Cambodian “Tiger Tooth.”