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Is Discovery Health Increasing the Stigma of Mental Illness?

Is Discovery Health Increasing the Stigma of Mental Illness?

Picture of Katherine Stone

If you watch cable, it may have been hard to miss that this week was Discovery Health channel's "Baby Week".  Like "Shark Week" on Discovery proper or "Croc Week" on Animal Planet, these programming spectacles are highly promoted and attract advertisers and eyeballs alike.  As the writer of a blog on postpartum depression, my antennae went up when I heard one of the "Baby Week" specials would focus on postpartum depression.  I knew a lot of moms would be watching, and wanted to make sure I tuned in to find out what information was presented and in what tone.  Last night, I finally had a chance to view the show, entitled "Postpartum Nightmares". 

Somebody please wake me up.

Serious problem #1:  Oh, Discovery Health.  Is it that you have no choice?  In order to get viewers, must you attempt to turn something educational into "shock and awe"?  Was it necessary to utilize horror movie editing and images?  Quick cuts?  Lots of shadows?  Dark rooms?  Menacing music?  The empty rocking chair theme?  The image that literally set me to shouting at the TV was in the first segment, on Shelley Ash, where the actress portraying Shelly is shown cooking in the kitchen and the camera zooms in, lingering WAY TOO LONG, on the gleaming, sharp, serrated knife she's using to cut vegetables.  Really?! Nice use of misleading stereotypes.

Serious problem #2:  The first segment they did right out of the chute was on postpartum psychosis.  That makes sense, of course, since it's the illness most people with perinatal mood and anxiety disorders get.  Wait a minute ... no it isn't.  But it is the most sensational of all the illnesses because of the increased potential for harm, so let's make sure to scare the bejeezus out of every pregnant mother watching.  I saw Twitter tweets the following morning with women questioning whether they should ever have children based on what they saw.  Is that what we want, or do we want people to know that these illnesses exist and are fully treatable?

Serious problem #3: With several of the segments, it was hard to know from which illness the mother was suffering.  Postpartum anxiety?  Postpartum depression? Postpartum OCD? Postpartum psychosis?  All of the above?  Two out of the three women portrayed, though, seriously considered harming their baby, one by dropping it off of a tall building and another by shaking it until it "shut up".  I think viewers could have walked away from this thinking every new mother with a perinatal mood or anxiety disorder is potentially murderous.  All together now people: They aren't.  This doesn't mean these illnesses are not serious, but could we please not overdo it?  This just adds to the stigma we are working so hard to eliminate.

I think my husband summed the show up best:  the words spoken by the mothers and professionals (calm, informative, balanced, open) did not mesh in any way with the majority of audio and video used (scary, looming, haunting, creepy).

Why am I, sadly, not surprised?

To be fair, there were some positive things about this show.  I appreciated the courage and honesty of the three women featured: Shelley Ash, Alisa Bowman and Tarah Mathews.  Each was very open about what happened and presented her experiences in a clear and compelling way.  I also was glad the producers reached out to professionals who knew what they were talking about when it comes to perinatal mood and anxiety disorders, including Shoshanna Bennett and Pec Indman, who did a great job imparting key points and helping people understand that postpartum depression and anxiety are fairly common among new mothers.  Finally, the stories highlighted some of the real risk factors that exist for new moms, including having a baby go to the NICU, having a difficult birth, lack of adequate social support in caring for the baby and breastfeeding problems.  

Discovery Health bills itself as the channel "... where viewers turn for trusted information that helps them take better control of health and wellness issues."  The Discovery Communications Inc. website further states that "in keeping with its mission, Discovery is dedicated to satisfying curiosity and making a difference in people's lives through our content ..."  How about making a difference in how people view mental illness, rather than adding to the stigma? 


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