Every Monday, Lauren Hale (@unxpctdblessing on twitter) of the blog My Postpartum Voice hosts a moderated twitter chat: #PPDChat. #PPDChat is an excellent resource and sees some wonderful discussions that are doing a lot to increase education and awareness about PPMD, help warrior moms, etc. Lauren always comes up with great topics that provide some excellent food for thought, and this week was no exception.
As per Lauren’s post on her blog, this week’s topic was “media sensationalism and PPD”. Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to participate because I was having trouble resetting my twitter password, but this topic has been on my mind a lot lately and it’s a very important issue, so I wanted to talk about it here.
On the aforementioned post, Lauren says “ So often, as I stated in my post “On Not Wanting To”, when a mom hurts herself or her children, we get the sensationalized version of it and the details of her journey to that point (and her journey after the event) are dramatized as well. “. When I checked out #PPDChat to see the discussion, I saw a comment that jumped out and grabbed me by the hair yelling “LOOK AT ME! I AM AN EXCELLENT POINT!!!!!” During the course of the chat, a user named @Foodiemental said “@unxpctdblessing Media coverage seems a bit ignorant abt extent & types of PPD & only reports the extreme cases (mom kills baby) #ppdchat”.
This. Is. So. Freaking. True.
When you think about PPD coverage in the media, what comes to mind? What comes to my mind is the coverage of the cases of Susan Yates, Otty Sanchez, and Cynthia Wachenheim. More recently, the media has been talking about Ebony Wilkerson, the pregnant mother who drove her minivan with her three children into the ocean. Here are some of the problems I see with the media’s coverage of PPD.
1. The media only talks about the horrifically tragic cases, usually involving a mother who kills or attempts to kill herself and usually one or more of her children, and in a very derogatory and dramatic fashion. It’s not nearly as common to see the media talking positively about those who survive perinatal mood and anxiety disorders, the people who support them, efforts to combat stigma and increase awareness and education regarding perinatal mood and anxiety, the need for far greater research and funding, or other related issues. You also don’t usually see the media covering these cases in a strictly factual basis. There tends to be a lot of inflammatory language that not only portrays those with maternal mental illness as doomed souls for whom there is no help, but also can be very triggering. So much of this media coverage comes across as being more about sensationalism and getting numbers than about passing along information in an unbiased and factually accurate way.
2. The end of #1 leads me to #2: the media has a REALLY bad habit of getting their facts wrong. There’s a disturbing tendency to think that all mental health issues are one and the same and that diagnoses are interchangeable terms. This is categorically not true. Postpartum Depression and Postpartum Psychosis are not the same thing (and that seems to be the mix-up that I see the most often). Postpartum Psychosis is far more serious than Postpartum Depression (Which of course, is very serious in it’s own right and not to be dismissed or taken lightly), and may be accompanied by symptoms including – among others – hallucinations and the belief that you can’t trust anyone and people might be out to get you (paranoia).
This is a very basic overview of some of the issues I have with typical media coverage of perinatal mood and anxiety disorders. So, what can be done to improve media coverage? Here are some of my ideas.
- Leave out the crazy dramatizations. Make it about simply giving information, not about trying to provide Lifetime with a new movie script.
- Ditch the inflammatory language.
- Before putting out a story, consult with people who know. Go to sources like doctors and mental health professionals who specialize in and have experience with perinatal mood and anxiety disorders. People who have survived are another potential resource. Make sure your facts and straight and that your tone is respectful.
- Start talking about survivors and not just the tragic cases where someone dies or almost dies. And when you do cover these sad cases, use some compassion rather than seeing who can crucify the subject of the story in the most gory manner possible.
- Start talking about the need for more research and funding for research. Talk about the need for more medical facilities that have resources specifically for perinatal mood and anxiety disorders. Talk about the research that is happening.
So, to the media, I say this. Stop focusing on the drama. Your words have the power to hurt a lot of people, or to help them. Your words and attitudes have the power to impact the stigma that surrounds postpartum depression, but the impact you make is up to you. Come talk to us. Find out what OUR stories are, the stories of everyday women and men who have survived or are struggling to make it through that nasty postpartum battle. These illnesses claim too many lives. Help us make a difference in the right direction.
 The #PPDChat hashtag is also used throughout the week to tweet amongst the PPD community, whether it’s a cry for help, a link, etc. Monday is simply when a moderated chat happens on a set topic.