Is all publicity good publicity?

by Ashley Solomon

With a recent announcement that Oprah’s network is developing a new show called Inside Rehab to add to the ranks of A&E’s successful Intervention, Obsessed, and Hoarders, the voyeur in me jumps for cable television joy. The sound-minded clinician in me, however, wonders what impact such shows have on the individuals they spotlight, others suffering from the same ailments, and the general public’s perception of mental illness.

A&E's Obsessed highlights CBTThe infamous “they” say that all publicity is good publicity. When we’re talking about Lindsey Lohan’s latest foray into the legal system, perhaps the adage stands true. But we’re talking about the perception of serious mental and medical conditions, I’m not so sure.

One of the problems with creating docu-dramas around issues of mental illness is that person at the center becomes just one more piece of the television empire’s goldmine, and sometimes at the expense of the individual’s dignity and wellbeing. This is a tough issue because often the individuals who agree to participate in these shows would not receive very-necessary treatment otherwise. However, the issue of ethical informed consent arises when we consider that producers are at times approaching individuals in their absolute most vulnerable states, when they are feeling totally helpless and in crisis, and offering a carrot in exchange for sensationalizing their story. It would be worth finding out if the individuals who have been spotlighted would agree to participate if they had it to do all over again.

While the individual’s wellbeing and rights are paramount, I also become concerned, on a bigger picture level, about the perception of mental illness that gets portrayed through these vehicles. Consider a recent release about a new E! six-part series called “What’s Eating You?” in which the network plans to spotlight a woman who eats toilet paper dipped in pickle juice every night before bed. While pica, a disorder in which a person (usually a child, and often with a developmental disorder) consumes non-nutritive substances (e.g. paper, clay), is serious, I have a hard time believing that the producers decided to spotlight this woman in order to expose this under-represented disorder. They are telling her story because it’s sensational. It’s “weird.” And it’ll get people to watch in that “I don’t want to look, but I just have to!” kind of way. Does this really do service for the individuals who are struggling with this disorder?

This is all not to say that mental disorders should be banished from television. Far from it! In fact, I wholeheartedly believe that the media has an incredible opportunity to elucidate and educate the public on matters of the mind. While I have personally been deprived of cable for the past year, I am told that there are good examples out there, shows like the Discovery Channel’s Hoarding, which is reality and evidence-based (apparently). And I should mention that A&E’s Obsessed has done a service by presenting to the public not just the problem, but the most well-established treatment for obsessive-compulsive disorder, cognitive behavioral therapy.

While I believe that clinicians, researchers, and other mental health advocates have a responsibility to both challenge the misinformed and create better representations, it is also the responsibility of the media consumer to be mindful of the messages that he or she is taking in. So next time you start gawking at the severely underweight teenager as the show reveals her entire meal plan for the week (never a good idea!!!!!!!), maybe just turn back to Lost. It might be more realistic.

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One Comment to “Is all publicity good publicity?”

  1. “the show reveals her entire meal plan for the week (never a good idea!!!!!!!)”

    Yeah. I always wonder about that. Writers sometimes get flack from concerned parties when they come up with “the perfect murder” or a smart terrorist plot, etc. With writing, I do tend to give writers more slack because they’re not exploiting real people… but there’s still a risk. (Then again, all this information is usually available online too. There is no shortage of exhibitionists in this world.)

    Anyway, I think you’re right, there’s good and bad to exposing these things. It’d be great if all producers/networks were concerned about their responsibility to the individuals and the public, but of course, their #1 concern is the bottom line.

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