In 1938, the residents of Grovers Mills, N.J., were horrified to hear radio news reports that aliens, presumably from Mars, had landed on their countryside and were invading the Earth. In spite of Orson Welles’ introduction that the radio show was pure fiction, the pseudo-news bulletins caused panic in local residents who had either missed the warnings or were taken in by the realistic nature of the reports. In the pre-World War II climate of fear, news of an invasion was quite believable.
Now with the advent of Facebook, blogs, and Twitter, news – or pseudonews – can spread even faster than alien invaders and links to cute cat videos. News about serious world events like the death of Osama bin Laden, the 9-11 attacks, or revolutions in Arabic countries can spread within minutes. Social media aggregation sites like Storify.com and Scoop.it let individuals become news curators by collecting video clips, pictures, tweets, and news reports about a topic on a single web page. We now have the tools to create anxiety, fear, and confusion on an exponential scale, while readers lose the ability to assure the accuracy of what they see and read.
What does this mean for psychiatry, and forensic psychiatry in particular? Let’s look at a list of tweets from one day in the life of this writer, pulled out using the hashtags “forensic” and “psychiatry”:
- Psychiatric care lacking before stabbing
- Hospital overmedicated and mistreated man
- Man accused of killing girlfriend and fetus to use insanity defense
- Man institutionalized for murdering father now charged with brutalizing puppy
- Killer of three acquitted by insanity to walk free again
- Insanity cases cause hospital to overflow
If all you knew about forensic psychiatry was what you read on Twitter, you would think we were filling the streets with evil weapon-wielding overmedicated zombies. The traditional media isn’t much better. Recently, at the American Academy of Psychiatry and Law conference, there was a poster presentation of a study done using news reports from the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, USA Today and Fox News. The researchers found that of all the stories involving violence and the mentally ill, less than 5% mentioned accurate facts about the dangerousness of psychiatric patients. Apparently, the traditional media remembered what Orson Welles discovered: You can heighten the dramatic effect of a story by overlooking reality.
This information is also read by our patients and their families. While some of Orson Welles’ listeners sued ABC for the injuries caused by the War of the Worlds broadcast, today’s patients have no remedy for the stigma these stories create. Mental health professionals can confront this biased journalism through involvement in social media, by reminding the public about the real facts about violence: That psychiatric patients are more likely to be victims of violence than perpetrators, that they are more likely to be violent against themselves than against others, and that insanity acquittees have recidivism rates substantially lower than non-mentally ill offenders. This information can be repeated (and retweeted) as often as needed. Eventually, the general public may accept that the aliens have not landed.
<[QM]>—Annette Hanson, M.D.
Dr. Hanson is a forensic psychiatrist and co-author of Shrink Rap: Three Psychiatrists Explain Their Work. The opinions expressed are those of the author only, and do not represent those of any of Dr. Hanson’s employers or consultees, including the Maryland Department of Health and Mental Hygiene or the Maryland Division of Correction.