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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Never put off until tomorrow…

The American Association for Marriage & Family Therapy now estimates that the average couple seeking therapy has been having problems for over 5 years when they finally make the call. If you’re a math person, that’s 5.5 x 365 days of practicing being hurt, resentful, bitter, etc. Rehearsing that much will make you pretty good at just about anything…which you might remember a parent telling you, repeatedly, about the music lessons you didn’t want. Your brain is changing, becoming better at remembering the bad times, the hurt feelings, the resentments: you become more efficient at bringing up anger and contempt. Meanwhile, the old, tender pathways are less traveled and harder to find.

Some problems are transient, but others are a pattern. It’s not the details, usually, so much as the pattern. If disagreements always seem to take the same, predictable, awful path from sarcasm to shouting to the silent treatment, something needs fixing.

Would you keep driving your car with the engine light on and smoke rolling out from under the hood for five minutes, much less five years?

The brain changes in response to experience. Experience isn’t just what happens to us. It’s also what we’re doing in our own heads (thinking angry vs. kind thoughts, for example). This means that, whether it’s a personal problem like social anxiety, depression or stress, or a relationship problem, we have some control over changing the direction our brain takes, developmentally.

Whatever the problem may be, it’s better to seek effective help early, before it gets out of hand.

 

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.

Reports, Commands and Rules

Many years ago, on the first day of class in the graduate-level course on Abnormal Psychology, our instructor held up the then-current version of the DSM (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders) and said,

“Always remember…you never know what flick is playing in someone else’s head.”

Words of wisdom: much goes awry because we forget that simple fact.

Honestly, don’t you ever wonder if some people are actually going out of their way to deliberately misinterpret what is said?

Have you never sat in slack-jawed wonder at the psychological gymnastics required to wrest a particular interpretation from something that meant nothing of the kind, as you witnessed someone gallop away, flush with a gross (and possibly deliberate) misunderstanding?

Sometimes, there may be bad intentions, or at least the intention, all along, to make some point, whether or not it makes any sense in context. We see this often in every level of politics. Commentator Smith had a well-rehearsed point to be made during the allotted few minutes on-air and by golly, Smith is going to find a way to interject it even if it makes no sense in context. Smith hopes that the point thus calculatingly made is so clever, so memorable, that it will be the “take-away” point for most listeners, even though, within the transcript, it seems arbitrary at best.

Among the well-intentioned, the problem may sometimes be a lack of clarity…more often, I think, it is a lack of clarification.

In family therapy and family systems theory, we refer to a metacommunication concept called “Report and Command.” The “report” is what someone actually says. The “command” is the meaning of that statement to them. It is the hidden expectation. In a final exam question for a family therapy course, I give the following example:

Matthew states, “Susan never makes my favorite meal anymore.” From a metacommunication perspective, “Susan never makes my favorite meal anymore,” is the report. The command portion might be:

  1. “I feel hurt because she doesn’t care to do this for me anymore.”
  2. “…And she should make my favorite meal.”
  3. “because she knows I’m supposed to watch my cholesterol.”
  4. There is no command in this communication

Students are expected to pick an answer and defend it briefly. There are multiple “right” answers. It is telling that, given the statement, “Susan never makes my favorite meal anymore,” more than half the students regularly assume that the command – the hidden meaning – is b, “And she should…” rather than the plaintive option, a, or even the matter-of-fact and somewhat complimentary c. The choice of b, of going negative, tells them, and me, a lot about how they make assumptions about what people might mean, and points out the risk of assuming rather than clarifying the deeper meaning of even seemingly mundane remarks. Here, then, if Matthew is passively expressing hurt at his wife’s apparent disinterest in nurturing him, and Susan instead “hears” a chauvinistic, boorish demand that she slave over a hot stove, well, I may have an appointment open, week from Tuesday, at 6 PM.

Another recent example: a friend observed a parent telling a child engrossed in a video game that the child’s sporting event was to begin in 10 minutes. To only the parent’s surprise, this barely nudged a response from the child. The parent actually said, “Hey, your race starts in 10 minutes.” The parent believes he communicated, “Hey, dude, we gotta get going NOW so you can be in position for the race in less than 10 minutes.” Dad made a vague observation about time that meant nothing to a child and the child took it literally: Dad is updating me on the passage of time. I leave to your imagination the subsequent exercise in frustration for Daddy and his swimmer.

Some people claim they don’t have a lot of expectations. Nonsense. Of course they do. They expect the lights to go on when they flip a switch, though for the most part they know not how it happens. They expect politicians to magically create more jobs and higher wages. They expect their spouse to read their mind when they make that little throat-clearing noise and bulge their eyeballs at dinner with extended family or friends. They expect their loved ones to know what they might want for their birthday. We all have lots of other day-to-day subtle expectations, without which we couldn’t get through the business of living. There really isn’t time in a day to treat every iota of experience as a new and undiscovered country. Some things have to be on autopilot (which implies expectations, however buried they may be).

If you are happily married, you expect your spouse to come home; you expect compassion; you expect at least well-feigned interest in much of what you say. You probably have a reasonable expectation that certain tasks will be done and that you will be warned before in-laws or ne’er-do-well friends, down on their luck, take up residence on the couch. If, to your surprise, perpetually unreliable Cousin Pete has been invited for an extended and slovenly stay, you might reasonably say to your spouse, through gritted teeth in a whisper in the kitchen, “I had no idea your Cousin Peter was coming to visit,” (report) with the unsaid (command), “…and I am perfectly right to expect that you would have asked before letting him set foot in our house.” “But honey,” your spouse might say, “Pete’s family.”

Ah, the family card. Now we move from Reports and Commands to Rules.

Everyone has rules. Some rules are overt: my husband has asserted that I am not permitted to give up chocolate for Lent. This is one of a few rules in our house. Have I mentioned his strong survival instinct?

Most rules are not even verbalized; they are taken for granted, as if a law of nature. In the example of your spouse’s unwelcome cousin Pete, “family are allowed to be here without either of us consulting the other,” is apparently the inviter’s rule. You might be thinking, “Yeah, well, maybe a nice family member but not stinky, rude, mooching Cousin Pete,” or, “for dinner, maybe, but to sleep on my couch for some indefinite period of time, no!,” but, you see, that is an entirely different rule.

A lot of clashes arise because people have not clarified their expectations and their rules, both to themselves and to others; and because they speak in terms that they believe are perfectly clear when actually they are not clear at all. Next time you find yourself in a gross misunderstanding with someone you love, perhaps it would be worth revisiting whether you actually communicated what you thought in the privacy of your head…and to ask more questions about what someone means before you assume that what you heard is what they intended you to understand.

 

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.

 

What are you waiting for?

The American Association for Marriage and Family Therapy asserts that the typical couple coming in for counseling has had difficulties for over five years…which makes me wonder, what are they waiting for?

There are a lot of seemingly perfectly sensible reasons to postpone counseling when things start to go awry:

“It’s expensive.” This is true; counseling does cost money and relationship counseling is an out-of-pocket expense. Still, most therapists are cheaper than two retainers, two divorce attorneys, a mediator, a parent coordinator, etc…

“I don’t want to be told what to do.” Well, a good therapist isn’t just going to tell you what to do. A therapist is going to be asking a lot of questions, having you fill out a lot of questionnaires, and trying to develop a very clear picture of your relationship’s specific strengths and the particular types of problems each of you identify. That way, research-recommended approaches can be matched to the problem(s) of the particular couple.

Fear. Don’t a lot of people fear that it’s going to be like that old Simpsons episode, where, after Marge vents for hours, the therapist turns to Homer and says something to the effect of, “I’ve never said this before, but it really is all your fault.” That’s not what happens in real life.

Shame. So many people suffer with shame over the difficulties they are having. Marital difficulties feel like a failure. Yet, if marital problems were some rare, shameful thing, why are there so many marital therapists? We have our own doctoral programs, professional licensure, and organizations. Beyond that, other non-specialists in the mental health professions also offer couples counseling.   Shame can be overcome by getting help and feeling less alone in the suffering.

The Ostrich. Just try to ignore it and hope it goes away: the addiction, the affair, the endless disputes about parenting or money or values and ethics. Some things, ignored, will go away: a minor cold, a pimple, a minor aggravation of the day. Other things, though, just fester and turn into a nasty emotional infection: resentment, trauma, guilt, hurt.

If your relationship is suffering from feelings of distance and disconnect, or seems to be a vortex of repetitive arguments, counseling could be very effective. Often, five or six appointments, spread out over four to six months, can make a world of difference when both parties are willing to work at changing patterns of behavior and experimenting with new ways of interacting.

It’s important to find a counselor who is a good fit. Call a few of us; talk for a few minutes; get a sense of style and see who seems like a good fit for the two of you.

Be bold. Push past shame and fear; challenge your inner ostrich. Then start to feel happy again.

 

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.

Toxic Myths, revisited

A lot of people ask about toxic myths: what does that mean? Why “myths?” (I’d like to say, well, buy the book, and sometimes do).

The toxic myths are examples of lies dressed up as truths. Our culture is seething with them, but in Toxic Mythology, I only addressed a few.

For example, consider the myth that people can compartmentalize their lives. Someone can, within this myth, be an absolute scoundrel in their personal life but supposedly be capable of being completely trustworthy and honorable in their public/vocational role.   Conversely, they can (per the myth, at least) be a sociopath in their professional life but be kind, tender and good in private.

So…if you buy this myth, you have to be willing to:

Vote for someone who swears to uphold a particular principle while having a personal and/or professional life littered with betrayals and a habit of acting on expediency, not principle;

Believe your child who promises she didn’t really cheat on that exam or plagiarize on the paper (despite the software evidence) after same child was grounded for “borrowing” money out of your wallet without permission.

Keep on an employee whom you overhear lie to customers because you haven’t caught that employee lying to you.

Convince yourself that your gossipy acquaintance never, ever would talk about YOU behind your back.

Does any of that sound reasonable? Of course not; these are, however, the toxic myth in action. Our culture tells us that it’s perfectly reasonable to believe that compartmentalization of character is possible and (further) that we should be “judgmental.” That’s another myth for another day.

 

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.

Mental Health, Well-Being, and Responsibility

More about personal responsibility in regards to mental health and well-being…

Have you noticed how often people talk about things they do as if they were events that happened. It’s as if “stuff happened,” and they were just hapless victims of circumstances. Note, I am talking about the things people actually DO – not things that really do happen to them.

“I got to work (or class, or church, or wherever) late.” A more accurate description would be, “I decided to do (some category of activity) rather than leave on time.” Maybe it was staying in bed, maybe it was “one more chore,” but the person decided to do something and thus the lateness.

Someone complains, “I woke up with a hangover,” when, of course, the reality is, “I decided to drink to a point where I knew I would feel lousy today but last night it seemed like a really good idea.”

“The (whatever task – homework, a chore, etc.) didn’t get done.” What really happened? The person decided to do something else, or a whole bunch of something elses, rather than that pesky task.

So, one way to improve one’s well-being is to simply start taking responsibility for choices. I might decide to have a brownie ice cream sundae for breakfast, and if so, I should say I am deciding to have this instead of scrambled egg whites with cheese. The brownie sundae, in all its wonderful deliciousness, will not just happen to me by accident, without warning.

I can decide to sit and stew about something that bothers me or I can decide to try to focus on some other activity and decide that I will figure out what to do about a particular problem when I’m in a better frame of mind. I get to decide; an hour spent stewing is something I can choose, or maybe I can choose to do something else instead.

You can decide to be in a relationship with someone who is toxic and mean, or not.

You can decide whether to seek help in parenting strategies, or throw up your hands in despair, or try the consequence-of-the-week approach except for when you’re too tired to argue.

You can decide whether to join a grief support group or suffer in silence and loneliness.

The act of owning a decision gives a greater sense of control, because if you decided one thing today, you might decide something else in five minutes, or tomorrow, or next week. If stuff just happens to you, you have no control, and thus must sit around being helpless, hoping for better luck next time.

Luck is an iffy plan.

It would be better to decide.

 

 

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.

Letting Children be Children

Is having a healthy, happy childhood a good thing? Is it important to have that foundation in order to be a productive, healthy and happy adult? All of us would agree that, “Well, duh. Of course.” Well, of course…yet, around the world, it seems that the short-lived glorification of childhood as a separate, sacred stage of life (in many ways a 20th century movement) is crumbling away.

In some European nations, 14 year olds have attained the age of consent to sexual activity with adults. Here in the US, they aren’t expected to remember their homework and thus teachers must dutifully post assignments on a school website so parents can check. For the record: 14 year olds can remember homework. Try breaking a promise about a privilege and see how good their memory actually is. The same child, however, is not capable of informed consent. They are not equipped to really understand long-term consequences due to brain development.

In the Netherlands, a 12 year old who is seriously ill – and consider that here, an awful lot of parents don’t expect 12 year old children to do chores or remember their own shin guards for soccer – can petition a judge to be euthanized due to illness. Their parents get to choose whether to grant permission up until age 16. That means that a 17 year old can petition to be medically killed. The same child might not be able to follow through on a college admission essay, or otherwise exhibit normal responsibility, but somehow their request to die ought to be treated as a perfectly normal legal procedure.

In our own country, about 9% of children have been diagnosed with ADHD and are being treated with medications, most often powerful stimulant medications – a rate that dwarfs much of Europe’s less-than-1% rate for medicating children.

Psychologically and physically, children aren’t miniature adults, as was so often the view in the past, due to the physically challenging, dangerous life most humans lived over much of history. They need love, secure boundaries, and guidance in learning to make good choices as they mature. Where these needs are unmet, adult dysfunction, emotional distress and physical illnesses are apt to follow.

They definitely don’t need to make life-or-death decisions, or be exploited by bad adults, or otherwise be treated with an expectation that they are fully rational, insightful grownups.

 

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.