Friday, March 08, 2013

Writing With Style

I thought people might be interested to know that the Associated Press just updated its style manual to give guidance to journalists writing about people with mental illness. Besides the obvious advice like "don't use words like 'crazy' or 'nuts'" (and it's sad they'd really have to tell someone not to do that), they also advise journalists not to automatically attribute the behaviors they're covering to mental illness: "Avoid interpreting behavior common to many people as symptoms of mental illness. Sadness, anger, exuberance and the occasional desire to be alone are normal emotions experienced by people who have mental illness as well as those who don’t." Writers were advised that violence alone is not solely a sign of mental illness and to avoid relying on bystanders' statements that the subject of a story is mentally ill.

 This is good. Now the American Psychiatric Association needs to put together a style manual for talking head mental health types. If you go in front of a camera or behind a microphone (or keyboard) to comment on someone in the news and their alleged mental problems, you should know your professional and ethical limits. I've written about the problem of mental health professionals in high profile cases before over on Clinical Psychiatry News.

 This is not to say that mental health professionals shouldn't be involved in the media. They can provide a broader context for a story, correct inaccuracies and give an 'insiders' view of a story that may help the people get a better handle on what's going on. But, this should be done responsibly.


jesse said...

Excellent points, Clink. One possibly complex question masquerading as an easy one, though, has to do with the limits of what we shrinks can say when asked. You noted "it is unethical for a psychiatrist to offer a professional opinion unless he or she has conducted an examination and has been granted proper authorization for such a statement.” 

But does that statement refer to a professional opinion, or any opinion? So if a shrink says about the Connecticut shooter, for example, that only someone psychotic would do that, is that a professional opinion? That is, can we take our hats off and be as loose as everyone else, on any occasion?

jesse said...

That comment was not clear. Can we give an opinion without it being a professional opinion? Does it qualify as being professional because of our profession, or does it need to be identified as professional by location, oath, circumstance, or other factor? Is any opinion given by a lawyer on a legal issue a professional one, for example?

jesse said...

OK, I'm still not being clear. I've heard judges talk about legal cases, surgeons about surgery, and so on, in a casual manner, and thir comments were not heard as professional opinion but simply as their off the cuff opinions. Why should we be held to a different standard from that of other professionals and physicians?

jesse said...

I think I have it: if there is uch a thing as a "professional opinion" as in "is that your professional opinion, doctor?" does that not indicate that there are opinions we can give that are not our professional ones? Might it be that unless you say, for example, "in my professional opinion..." what you say ouside of your office should not be taken as such?

jesse said...

Anyone in front of a camera or news media needs to be careful, whether it is psychiatry or anyting else. I wonder whether the emphasis on psychiatry that I am reacting to stems from the fact that many psychiatrists opined on Barry Goldwater's mental fitness during his presidential campaign, and there was an understandable upset over that.

moviedoc said...

I hope the new style manual also recommends writers avoid using undefinable terms like "telemental."

William said...

@moviedoc - why are you trying to take away all the words?! How are we to expressify ourselves?

@jesse - I think the idea is that when a psychiatrist speaks, people seem to add extra importance to their words, whether they are off the cuff or not. (Which seems strange - most days in the office, I don't think anyone listens to me at all ...) So yes, it might be logical that a psychiatrist be held to a higher standard, because their words have more power.

That said - I don't think it's so unethical for a psychiatrist to speculate about things in the news - it is simply important to always draw that boundary and remind people that you have not examined the person in question, that you're speaking only in general terms, with very limited data.

Furthermore, to say something like "only someone psychotic would do that" is not so much unethical as it is silly. I think we get wrapped around the axle sometimes calling all imperfect behavior on the part of a doctor "unethical" - sometimes it's important to remember that some things a doctor might say are just not right.

Anonymous said...

The night of the Conn. school shootings, Dr. Drew was
taped calling the killer “pure evil”, saying that there was a difference between mental illness with violence and this inherent “evilness”. Now, this is entirely without interview or research or even the entire story which was still fragmented. If he was an anchor I could understand it, but he is a board certified psychiatrist. What if the shooter had an undiagnosed frontal lobe tumor? What if WHATEVER? That type of thing is entirely unjustified.