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Dear Editor: The media must beware of unhelpful ‘post-truths’ about mental health

“[…] I had a problem when she said, ‘No matter how privileged or happy your circumstances are, most humans suffer from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder.

“No degree of latitude from journalistic licence should be allowed about that statement. It is incorrect—not just because I am a psychiatrist saying so…”

The following Letter to the Editor, written in response to a Sunday Guardian column by Ira Mathur, was submitted to Wired868 by Dr Russell Lutchman, consultant forensic psychiatrist, Birmingham, UK:

Photo: A victim of PTSD.

Ira Mathur’s article ‘Fight or flight? Wrestling down PTSD’ in the Guardian of 7th November 2021 starts off as an obvious expression of personal bereavement. Mathur asks forgiveness for her sentimentality. 

But then there is an excursion into topics of other people’s grief, encounters with abusive behaviour, and unkindness. She explored the grief of some friend of hers. I forgive her sentimentality on those things.

I had a problem when she said, ‘No matter how privileged or happy your circumstances are, most humans suffer from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder.

No degree of latitude from journalistic licence should be allowed about that statement. It is incorrect—not just because I am a psychiatrist saying so. The evidence that makes the statement wrong can be found in any reputable source on mental health disorders on the Internet.

Referring to other people’s emotional difficulties as PTSD reminded me of Nicki Minaj’s assertions about the effects of a vaccine on her cousin’s friend’s private parts. I doubt Mr Terrence Deyalsingh, health minister, would investigate Mathur’s claims about PTSD. 

Photo: Too depressed…

Mathur’s words—‘Most humans are in fight or flight mode. It’s glaring in our cell phone etiquette and on social media’—represent the sort of popular psychobabble that sells newspapers.

The issue is also seen in the UK where ‘science editors’ of popular broadsheets and tabloids, obviously doing their jobs of selling news, end up delivering misleading information about mental health matters.

We are in a world where there is blurring of  boundaries between social media and traditional media, with the latter regularly picked up by Facebook and other forums. One does not need to be an expert to comment on vaccines or PTSD these days. Almost anybody who has suffered with some sort of mental health problem can set up a blog, gather a following and claim expert knowledge based on their individual experiences. 

The effect of all that is that my patients are now lecturing to me on what their diagnoses and treatments must be, based on what they pick up ‘out there’.

Comments by journalists and celebs have a way of shaping minds about many issues. All persons—even non-celebs and people who are not journalists—should be very careful not to place ideas in the public domain that may inadvertently mislead attitudes or beliefs.

Photo: Persons suffering from mental health issues are advised to seek professional help.

Editors of all news outlets have a responsibility not to unwittingly promote post-truth. The concept has been well explored by Lee McIntyre in his book ‘Post-Truth’. It is a broad and deep concept that includes, inter alia, the acceptance of something as true just because it has been repeated thousands of times.

Ms Mathur’s article was a good read except for the above concerns.

The following is a response from Ira Mathur:

I’m pleased that Dr Russell Lutchman brought up the issue of the above statement being ‘wrong’ given there are no statistics available on the current trauma being suffered in Trinidad and Tobago.

The American Psychiatric Association describes post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) as a ‘psychiatric disorder that may occur in people who have experienced or witnessed a traumatic event such as a natural disaster, a serious accident, a terrorist act, war/combat, or rape or who have been threatened with death, sexual violence or serious injury’.

Photo: Trinidad Guardian columnist Ira Mathur.

As a journalist working in Trinidad for over 25 years in a country that has an unacceptable rate of murder in a non-warring country, that is still suffering from post-colonial trauma, in an economic downturn, and that is battling the pandemic, that statement of PTSD needs to be put into context. 

It was made in general terms given the pressure most people are under and in the context of appealing to people to look out for one another. It was not written in a medical context.

Despite being a psychiatrist in the UK with access to health journals, the doctor did not offer up any statistics of his own, given his unsubstantiated statement that my reference to PTSD reminded him of ‘Nicki Minaj’s assertions about the effects of a vaccine on her cousin’s friend’s private parts’.

Those who refuted Nikki Minaj’s claims did so with science-based facts and numbers. This was lacking in the doctors’ letter to the editor and undermines his professional rebuttal to my column.

I accept in my commentary that I strayed into the medical arena and used a mental health term loosely and will refrain from doing so in the future. However, as a journalist, I reject his statement that my column was in any way equal to that of a celebrity on Twitter. 

Photo: A woman self-isolates during the Covid-19 pandemic.

I also welcome any medical statistics Dr Lutchman may provide regarding his response to my column and the post-pandemic mental health of small island nations such as ours.

Editor’s Note: Click HERE to read Ira Mathur’s column ‘Fight or flight? Wrestling down PTSD’.

About Letters to the Editor

Letters to the Editor
Want to share your thoughts with Wired868? Email us at editor@wired868.com. Please keep your letter between 300 to 600 words and be sure to read it over first for typos and punctuation. We don't publish anonymously unless there is a good reason, such as an obvious threat of harassment or job loss.

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