by Carly Walter
Media plays a key role in informing the general public about posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Through this process of information dissemination, we (i.e., the public) form opinions on this diagnosis based on the portrayal of mental health in media coverage. Throughout the years, awareness of PTSD has increased, but the information set forth is incomplete and/or inaccurate (Purtle, Lynn, & Malik, 2016). Furthermore, media tend to represent people with mental health difficulties in a dangerous way, perpetuating mental health stigma (Wahl, 2003). Most of the mental health media coverage focuses on violence. Under 15% of mental health news articles describe treatment success and recovery from a mental illness (McGinty et al., 2016), whereas the negative effects of untreated mental health difficulties are notoriously reported. Stigma is a main barrier that inhibits people from seeking help (Murphy & Busuttil, 2014). There is a clear need to focus media efforts away from perpetuating negative stereotypes and stigma regarding trauma and mental health, and instead move towards emphasizing positive mental health stories and treatment options.
The way media can affect mental health perceptions and willingness to seek treatment can be seen in our nation’s veteran population and the accompanying stigma regarding mental health. Research indicates that negative attitudes associated with stigma toward psychological problems predict lower rates of treatment-seeking behaviors in the veteran population (Kulesza et al., 2015). Moreover, veterans seeking PTSD treatment are perceived as being labeled “crazy” or “violent” which in turn delays help-seeking even more (Mittal et al., 2013). Veterans face many stressful situations during their military service, and the likelihood of developing PTSD is relatively high; 11-30% of various era veterans will receive a PTSD diagnosis according to the National Center for PTSD website (www.ptsd.va.gov). Receiving treatment in a timely manner is imperative for veterans suffering from PTSD symptoms. Many veterans can benefit from available resources, but education is needed to break down stigma barriers and to provide education on available treatment options. Both increasing knowledge and awareness, as well as stigma reduction, can be addressed through the media; as this column indicates, “media matters.”
Education is one of the overarching strategies to reduce stigma (Rüsch, Angermeyer, & Corrigan, 2005). Pilot media campaigns focusing on de-stigmatization of mental health via education have been tested with a number of different populations ranging from high school students to police officers (Rüsch et al., 2005). Additionally, a web-based approach showed success in improving attitudes toward mental health and treatment-seeking in the veteran population (Hamblen et al., 2019). Although limited research investigates mass media interventions, small samples have been successful in reducing stigma (Ross et al., 2019). Media interventions, if implicated on a wider scale, have the potential to greatly change attitudes toward mental health.
Portraying successful mental health treatment is efficacious in reducing discrimination towards people with a mental health disorder (e.g., McGinty et al., 2015). Advanced technologies, which make information about mental health more accessible, provide opportunities to destigmatize mental health. This can serve to remove barriers to seeking mental health treatment. The majority of the U.S. population (79%) have a social media account (U.S. Population with a Social Media Profile, 2019). Social media can have a substantial impact, and if effectively utilized, mental health professionals can have far reaching impacts (Grajales III et al., 2014). The ability to share helpful information regarding treatment options and symptomatology can help change perceptions and increase accessibility with the touch of a button. Furthermore, the platforms available via social media can have multiple benefits: enhancing the patient-provider relationship, increasing interactions with others (including social and emotional support systems) and creating greater education opportunities to the general public (including specific populations interested in a particular disorder) (Moorhead et. al., 2013).
Furthermore, web-based support has offered veterans a place to find support. Veterans use the internet to create a support system that they may be lacking in the external world. Therapeutic group factors are shown in the exchange of coping strategies among online veterans (Salzmann-Erikson & Hiçdurmaz, 2017). Online outlets are extremely important when it comes to educating and supporting one and another. As such, this educational opportunity could be especially useful for the veteran population.
Future research should explore the implications of media interventions on stigma and education for mental health in a variety of settings. Social media campaigns are promising and could be at the forefront of this initiative. There is promising evidence to indicate that media campaigns and social media platforms can provide education and reduce stigma. Additional understanding of these mechanisms can help to break down barriers and fallacies that have been built through previous media coverage.
About the Author:
Carly Walter is a clinical research coordinator for the Traumatic Stress Studies Division under the leadership of Dr. Rachel Yehuda at the James J. Peters VAMC/Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai. She graduated in 2015 from Central Michigan University with a bachelor’s degree in psychology. She plans to pursue graduate studies to further her knowledge of PTSD and hopes to provide therapy to the veteran population.
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