by Monica A. Ross, LPC
Information relayed by mass media outlets has a way of being taken for granted by the public as true. This would be fine if all news sources were neutral and unbiased when reporting on the issues they address. But when the media reports issues in a negative or stereotypical way it can feed into social stigma.
What often follows then is social distancing and discrimination. In relation to issues involving public health, including mental health, these discriminatory behaviors set up an “us versus them” dichotomy and some of our most vulnerable become susceptible to dehumanization.
What we call reality has both socially constructed and scientific components. The socially constructed nature of reality adheres to the idea that we as individuals subjectively make sense of the world which is then filtered through individual experience. But from a scientific view for every effect–there is a direct cause.
A combination of both of these approaches leads to what we in the practice of mental health care call the biopsychosocial approach which is a more holistic and balanced approach to treatment. Borrow too heavily from either the biological, psychological, or social components in the public discourse and discussions get murky. We lose balance.
What are the types of issues up for debate in public healthcare? They are issues such as: Should individuals experiencing a mental crisis be involuntarily admitted? Should inpatient treatment be favored over more community-based approaches? How much should self-determination and consumer participation come in to play when providing services?
We must take into account that reporters and experts alike speak from a privileged place as evidenced by the fact that they have access to a broader audience. They are often influenced by competing interests with ties to financial gain. Knowledge becomes produced and shared to maintain a practical end.
The sharing of knowledge becomes a type of competition for attention with the ultimate aim of the construction of a common reality for the public. This structure is played out in polemical social representations or the ways in which social aspects of society are portrayed as opposites. Public discourse stagnates.
The stagnation effect is due to expert disagreement on the nature of the problem or the best way of tackling it with each side pointing out the ridiculousness of the other’s argument. Conflicting opinion from reporters and experts alike necessitates responsibility on the part of the audience then to decipher and vet the credibility of those speaking along with matching the advice given to one’s own personal experience.
The audience develops an imaginary interlocutor that engages as the public debate plays out in audience minds. The audience is at once asked to rely on expert opinion and the factual presentation of events independent of personal experience while at the same time learning the message of the inability to trust experts whose opinions often conflict.
But who is right?
Rather than buying books by the experts, or rather in addition to buying books, many consumers have taken to the internet to ask advice on forums such as reddit, twitter, facebook groups, and quora––it seems everyone is an advisor thanks to technology’s democratizing effects. However, social media sites can also be places of comment wars and negative social comparison.
Spending greater amounts of time on social media itself has been cited as a precursor to symptoms of clinical depression–an example of the very thing discussed in this post with expert opinion varying. As modern society has become more complex with a complexity of discourses, the struggle for the attainment of legitimacy by expert opinion when speaking on complex issues makes sense as there is no longer an appeal to one singular ideology.
In fact, there are a multitude of experiences and worldviews and therefore a multitude of ways of finding meaning and truth. Though dominant discourses still exist–still in order for innovation to take place–stakeholders need to speak from a more emancipated and empowered way.
An empowered way of speaking is de-centered from pointing out social injustices and places its focus instead on dialectical thinking and conflict resolution. We as a society place value on the ability to show strength in overcoming adversity and we admire those who demonstrate resilience.
Similarly, we place value on those who achieve what they can with what they have been given in life. Both of these constructs place value on action. Action is important, but so is being. And the core of what it means to be human is being human.
As the saying goes, existence precedes essence. And by existing and interacting with the world in which we live–through the public discourse or via other means–we define who we are. We are the meaning-makers.
Nuwer, R. (2017, June 17). How to talk constructively about mental illness. Pacific Standard [Santa Barbara, CA].
Pop, A. (2012). On the notion of polemic social representations - theoretical developments and empirical contributions. Societal and Political Psychology International Review, 3(2), 109-124.
Sims-Schouten, W., & Riley, S. (2018). Presenting critical realist discourse analysis as a tool for making sense of service users’ accounts of their mental health problems. Qualitative Health Research, 29(7), 1016-1028. doi:10.1177/1049732318818824
Monica A. Ross, LPC is a Licensed Professional Counselor in private practice in Austin, Texas. Monica can help you to foster resilience. To schedule your appointment with Monica, you can reach her at (512) 572-0055 or request an appointment with her on the Empathic Psychotherapy Scheduling Calendar.