You see it constantly in the news. A murderer had depression. A rapist sought care from a psychiatrist. A terrorist was prescribed antidepressants. Calling out a suspect’s depression has become commonplace and seemingly places the blame entirely on their mental health. Does this onslaught of negative portrayals affect depression treatment seeking? And if so, then how?
Are people more willing to visit a counselor or psychiatrist because the news makes them understand how serious depression can be? Or, do the bad portrayals and increasing stigma make those suffering from depression less likely to pursue treatment? According to an article published by Sang Yup Lee and Hana Kim, the results are probably exactly what you expect.
The resulting information here is derived from the article Relationship between media coverage of depression-related crimes and the number of people who visit a psychiatrist for depression published in Psychiatry Research. The authors are Sang Yup Lee and Hana Kim. Please be sure to check the full article for more information and to read more about their interesting research.
Country of Origin and Media Channels
This research was conducted in South Korea and uses information from the Korean medical big data system spanning from 2010 to 2017. The researchers compared the number of new patients seen for depression against media coverage from seven major Korean news networks: KBS, MBC, SBS, Channel A, JTBC, MBN, and TV Chosun.
While the research is from Korea, the resulting information can be applied to many other countries. More research is required, especially when it comes to some weaknesses I found in their report, but it lays a comprehensive framework for why the media should be conscious of their effect on those with depression and their willingness to seek treatment.
Negative Media Stories Significantly Affect Treatment Seeking
It should come as no surprise that negative media portrayals of depression significantly affect the willingness of people to seek treatment for depression. The stigma of depression increases whenever the news blames a crime (rape, murder, mugging, terrorism, etc) on a suspect’s depression. It doesn’t matter if the media says the suspect has depression, has visited a psychiatrist, or received antidepressants. All three seem to have the same effect.
The surprising thing about their research is that the effect wasn’t immediate. A negative news story about depression didn’t change how many people sought treatment the same month, but it did reduce patients for the next month. It’s thought that this gave the story adequate time to circulate and for stigma to increase, but this effect wasn’t further investigated so the reasoning is still unknown.
Both male and female patients were affected, but females were more affected as fewer female patients would seek psychiatric treatment for depression when compared to men. The researchers do offer a few opinions on this, but much like how the effects weren’t seen until the next month, none of these were further investigated.
They believed that females may have been more sensitive overall to the psychological effects of the negative media portrayal. Other opinions included that females were more sensitive to the resulting negative stigma or they were more worried about how others would perceive their depression in light of the negative media portrayal.
While females were more affected in their research, it’s important to note that both men and women were affected.
How can the media change in order to reduce their effect on those seeking help for depression? The researchers suggest that media outlets refrain from saying or implying that depression was the cause of the crime. Just because someone has depression or sought treatment for depression doesn’t mean they committed the crime due to their mental health. News outlets should make a clear distinction so they stop blaming the illness as it was ultimately the person’s decision to commit the crime, not their illness itself.
Aside from conducting similar research studies in other countries, one thing I would like to expand is the conditions these researchers studied. They specifically looked into the new cases of ICD10 code F32, or Major Depressive Disorder, Single Episode. For the layperson, this would be a patient’s first episode of depression ever.
There are two things I would like to change about this. First of all, many people have had recurrent depression throughout their lives but refrain from treatment out of anxiety or hopelessness (believing there’s no point in treatment because it “won’t help anyway”). This type of depression would be under a different ICD10 code (F33), so these patients weren’t included in this study. The current study also doesn’t include anyone with bipolar disorder or dysthymia.
While this research study focused on new patients, I would like to see if current patients stopped seeking treatment after negative media portrayals. Are current patients able to weather the stigma even as the media blames their condition? Or do they leave treatment and suffer in silence?
This report doesn’t give us answers to these specific questions, it’s easy to assume that current patients are also affected by the media.
It’s not surprising, but it’s worth saying so that people understand the media’s effects. Fewer people seek treatment for depression whenever the media blames their condition for the crime. Yes, people with depression commit crimes, but so do people without mental health conditions. It’s ultimate the person, not their condition, that committed the crime.
If you are someone else is worried about seeking help for depression (or any other mental health condition) because of the media’s treatment, then please don’t listen to the stigma. Your mental health is of paramount importance. Take care of yourself and do what’s right for you, even if the media can’t conduct itself properly. I know that can be difficult, especially with depression already making life tough, but please do what’s right for your health and get the treatment that you need.