Psychobabble: Faking It?

by endlesspsych

By Keir Liddle

I spent this Blue Monday at Glasgow Skeptics, where the excellent Michael Marsh (whose blog can be found here) was speaking on the subject of bad PR. This was not only an excellent talk, but it proved to be fortuitous when this story appeared on my twitter feed on the long trek back to Reekie , in both The Mirror and The Mail. While we may marvel briefly about the ability of this press release to unite both the right and left of the British press, we should also rightly be appalled at the stereotypes it reinforces: stereotypes that are of particular interest and relevance to me as they concern mental health issues.

The subject of the press release, produced by Yetis PR on behalf of mentaline.com, an online counselling service run by former Just-Eat CEO Jesper Buch, is a survey of 1,192 young people in the UK aged 12-17. Respondents to the study were asked questions surrounding mental illness, and their knowledge of the subject. The survey found, somewhat controversially, that  11% considered mental illness to be fashionable, and a third of these had pretended to have a problem in the past. This was reported as alarming in The Mirror and used as a stick by The Mail to batter the pinata of celebrity culture that coincidentally yields them greater readership.

The Mirror and The Mail have been rather alarmist in their use of the survey claiming that 34% of respondents (as opposed to 34% of 11%  — or 3% of the total, a slightly less worrying 44 people rather than 405); although in fairness to the newspapers, the release itself seems to be,–strangely for a mental health service provider– drawing attention to this aspect of their survey, as the following quote from Buch himself indicates:

I think its hugely shocking that so many young people think mental health problems are fashionable. Its a very sensitive topic and one that should be taken seriously, so to see that many teenagers are quite blas about the whole thing isn’t good at all.

I think many young people are too quick to say Im depressed or try to gain attention from their friends and family by pretending to have some kind of personal issue. Your teenage years should be spent enjoying life, not convincing people that you have issues that should be taken extremely seriously.

For one thing, the survey doesn’t actually establish that many young people think mental health problems are fashionable, and it’s worth noting again that the ‘many’ this is based on in fact add up to 44. Without access to the methodology, we can’t be sure how valid any inferences or results drawn from the study are. I have emailed Buch and the Yetis PR agency, and shall update the readers on any replies I receive.

What motivated me to write about this was not the intricacies of survey design, but what struck me as a very stark use of a reasonably common stereotype and preconception about mental illness in order to advertise a service. Essentially, it appears to tap into the worrying cultural trope that mental illness isn’t real and that sufferers simply need to “get a grip”. This is a view that is perhaps understandable but not to my mind excusable — even less excusable is the seeming exploitation of the idea to sell, of all things, a mental health service!

It strikes me that the PR company have tapped into this long held stereotype in a cynical and despicable way, simply to get the company’s name into the papers. Of course it’s understandable (but again, not excusable) as it must be easier to sell something if it’s associated with an idea that is simple and already ingrained. Unfortunately, mental health issues are anything but simple, and to risk reinforcing the sort of stereotypes reputable mental health charities and organisations have fought for years to dispel is irresponsible.

The idea that teenagers are faking mental illness is also pernicious when you consider that the National Office of Statistics suggests that one in ten children between the ages of one and 15 has a mental health disorder and that rates of mental health problems among children increase as they reach adolescence:

Disorders affect 10.4% of boys aged 5-10, rising to 12.8% of boys aged 11-15, and 5.9% ofgirls aged 5-10, rising to 9.65% of girls aged 11-15.

While it might be nicer to think that children and teenagers mental health issues are some sort of play acting, copying the example of their favourite celebs, faking it with no problems more serious than trying to be popular and unique, the reality is that mental health issues can affect anyone regardless of age.

Thus while Mentaline may be an interesting, and potentially useful mode of delivering mental health treatment its advertising campaign makes me somewhat skeptical. It doesn’t strike me that their CEO, or their PR people, have the appropriate understanding or empathy with mental health issues to responsibly and effectively advertise such a service.

(Additional note:  Mentaline aren’t the only mental health organisation or enterprise utilising PR in this manner – see this excellent blog about platform 51.)

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