What Your Patients are Hearing

TV and mental health story lines; when doctors don’t listen – to women


Turn on the television, and chances are good that popular dramas (especially hospital-oriented shows) will be showing an episode revolving around a mental health issue.

Dr. Jessica Gold

Dr. Jessica Gold

Bipolar disorder, binge-eating disorder, alcoholism, depression, and others make good fodder for Hollywood script writers. Getting the word out about mental health issues can be beneficial. But these portrayals of mental illness can backfire when the TV episode is sensationalized or the topic is presented inaccurately, writes Jessica Gold, MD, in InStyle magazine.

Issues can be simplified, substance use can be treated trivially, and solutions are miraculously found in the last few minutes of the show, in time for a commercial. Real life is messier.

“Unfortunately mental health story lines are much more likely to be fear-mongering and wildly wrong. As a psychiatrist, this both piques my interest and upends my work-life balance,” Dr. Gold writes. “Whether I’m watching everyone’s favorite medical drama or ‘reality TV,’ it’s impossible not to switch into physician mode, angry on behalf of all of my patients and the many viewers who are being misled.”

Do physicians hear women?

“Rebecca continues to be paranoid.”

That was a note written by someone involved in the medical care of a 30-something woman diagnosed with stage IIB cervical cancer, according to an article in New York magazine.

“There’s a whiff of old ‘female hysteria’ to [the note], with more than a hint of dismissal,” writes the patient’s sister, Kate Beaton. “Becky was scared, and perhaps that was the main takeaway that day. But she was also right.”

The article tells the story of a vibrant woman who, according to her sister, asked her doctors lots of questions, wrote everything down, and faced years of being dismissed when she explained her symptoms. Becky’s sister says she is telling her sister’s story in an effort to make a difference in the lives of other patients.

“[Becky] did not want anyone to go through what she went through, ever again,” Ms. Beaton writes.

Letting children roam free

Children of the 1950s and 1960s can remember tearing out the door after dinner with the parental order to be home before dark. Where we went and what we did was known only to us. Our parents trusted we knew how to look out after ourselves.

In that tradition, as explained by National Public Radio, some parents are actively turning away from the to-the-second scheduling of their children’s lives and Teflon coating them against the perceived danger of everyday life. Instead, they are letting their children be independent. It can be a powerful life benefit for a child. But it can come at a cost to parents. Parents in several states have been arrested for actions that include letting their children walk to school unattended.

“This very pessimistic, fearful way of looking at childhood isn’t based in reality,” says Leonore Skenazy in a story on NPR. “It is something that we have been taught.” Ms. Skenazy is founder of Free Range Kids, a group that promotes childhood independence.

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