Citations Needed

Citations Needed is a podcast about the intersection of media, PR, and power, hosted by Nima Shirazi and Adam Johnson.

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Episode 124: Mental Health During A Pandemic: How US Media Spins Societal Failures Into Personal Self-Help Journeys


A CNN headline from this past summer read: “Mental health during coronavirus: Tips for processing your feelings.” Psychology Today gave us an article on “Coping With Loneliness During a Pandemic,” while the Washington Post presents, “A guide to taking care of yourself during the pandemic.” Everywhere we’ve turned over the past 9 months, American media has been covering the mental health downside of the COVID-19 pandemic and the subsequent lockdown and economic crash on one of these two settings: Awareness Mode or Self-Help Mode.

The first setting — “Awareness Mode” — is merely witnessing mass suffering; that is, reporting on the topic with no prescriptions offered. Second is “Self-Help Mode,” which is, to the extent these articles do put forth prescriptions for wellness and mental health, it is entirely individualistic in nature. Your well-being during this once-in-a-century pandemic is up to you — but don’t fret, here are some “guides,” ”plans,” “hacks,” and “tricks” to help you out.

Missing from the vast bulk of coverage is the glaringly obvious third option: actionable, proven, political solutions to mental health crises that operate under the radical assumption that  social problems may require social solutions. Nowhere in any of these articles is the idea that socialized medicine, guaranteed income, free childcare, student debt relief or rent and mortgage cancellations may be the best and most rational “hacks” or “tricks” to actually improve mental health of people at scale.

Obviously, a robust social safety net wouldn’t solve all mental health problems — after all, countries with universal healthcare and generous unemployment and childcare benefits still have depression and suicides — but we have decades of data showing basic social welfare clearly improves mental welfare. But because mental health crises are seen as moral failings rather than diseases thrust upon innocent people, we are conditioned to view those suffering from their effects as inevitable, losses simply factored into the moral framework of the world.


It basically goes like this: If a giant blood-sucking monster were ravaging the country killing thousands of people and terrorizing millions more, the media would never provide us “hacks” or “plans” or “tricks” to cope with the giant blood-sucking monster. It would ask the obvious question: What are those in power doing to stop the monster from killing and terrorizing in the first place?

Unfortunately, such an approach is sacrilege in U.S. media when it comes to mental health. The solution is never to lobby for a specific candidate or policy that would provide immediate relief to the masses because neoliberal hyper-atomization, unlike appeals to social solutions, is not seen as political. It’s simply the objective reporter voice mode of journalism U.S. media has uncritically adopted. But collectivist solutions, marked by the political choice to redistribute resources to the less well-off, is a proven technique to help those suffering mental health issues, doubly so during a pandemic that has cut people off from socialization, radially increased substance abuse, and has left millions unemployed.

Our guest is writer Colette Shade.


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 2020-11-25  1h5m