Tuesday, October 12, 2010

The Unbearable Lightness of Brainless Journalism

I’m going to do a breakdown of an Express Tribune feature about mental illness, simply because its lackadaisical treatment of an issue that doesn’t get enough attention summarizes one of the most significant problems in print journalism today, i.e. muddy thinking.

Let me begin with the article heading, "The Unbearable Burden of Being Mentally Ill." This tells me two things. One, mental illness is unbearable and a burden so, if I am depressed or bipolar and have reached for the morning paper in an effort to stay connected to the world, I should screw that and go ahead and drown myself in my coffee. Two, the writer (Mahnoor Sherazee) or sub-editor has read Milan Kundera’s The Unbearable Lightness of Being. Or it’s title. Or possibly had it thrown at them.

"KARACHI: Why me? This emerged as the dominant theme among parents of children with special needs when asked about their role as primary caregivers."

The sub-heading tells me this is going to be an article about the challenges faced by parents of children with special needs. Since I do, for some reason, believe that the symptoms of ‘mental illness’ generally manifest themselves clearly around adolescence and after, when I think of children with ‘special needs’, I think of autism, Down’s syndrome, physical disabilities.

"Parenting on its own can be a tough job and parenting a child with limited cognitive development is significantly more challenging. Of course there are some parents who are quick to move past the denial and forward with the responsibilities of providing for their children but in such situations acceptance can extend beyond just one person’s understanding."

According to this paragraph, parenting is tough, parenting a kid with limited cognitive development is even more challenging, and the inevitable response to said challenge is denial. In other words, nowhere on God’s earth is a parent who has held their newborn in their arms (for some reason I am still thinking Down’s Syndrome or something akin to it), listened as the circumstances of its birth and life are explained to them and thought ‘it doesn’t matter, this too is creation, and this too is love.’ And then there is the line ‘in such situations acceptance can extend beyond just one person’s understanding.’ If you’ll excuse me for a minute, I’m going to think about this line very hard.

I have been thinking about this line very hard for some time now and have come to the conclusion that I don’t understand it. This can mean one of two things. One, that it doesn’t make any sense. Two, that my cognitive development is limited.

I blame my parents denial.

“While some mothers come out of denial very quickly then they face resistance from not just their family members but also in some cases their husband,” says Sadaf Shahid, a speech therapist, adding that, “In fact, often the child is not given the same privileges as their siblings.”

Speech therapist? When did speech therapists become the first port of call for expert opinions on mental illness? Do they also know for whom the bell tolls? Or where I put that sock? But on to what the quote implies: Some mothers do have ‘em. And love ‘em. But to date there have been no recorded instances of human fathers.

"According to psychiatrists, traditionally the “burden of care” for a mentally ill child or person falls on the single female(s) of the family or the daughter-in-law. The reason for this is there are no real institutions to help provide care or train individuals who are caring for people with such illnesses thus creating a dangerous lack of professional understanding of the psychological issues at stake. This also adds a financial burden on the person. And when society at large provides no support and even less understanding, the stress can be immense on a caregiver."

Fair enough. The burden of care generally does fall on women. And it is indeed tremendously difficult to cope with a person with complicated psychological issues. In fact, caregivers sometimes end up developing psychological issues themselves. Not that that’s worth mentioning. Because that would detract from the focus of the piece, which is…

"Dr Murad Moosa Khan is a consultant psychiatrist and chair at the Department of Psychiatry at the Aga Khan University (AKU). Speaking at a seminar organized by AKU he said, “Between 40 to 50 per cent of the nation is affected by some minor or major mental illness (MI).” Minor or common illnesses constitute up to 30 per cent and include depression and anxiety whereas major or psychosomatic disorders include illnesses such as schizophrenia, brain damage and resistant depression."

Enter the big quote gun to finally name, several paragraphs in, some of the things people think of when they see the term ‘mentally ill’; schizophrenia, depression, anxiety, psychosomatic disorders, resistant depression. That point about the stress of dealing with complicated issues earlier was really an excellent one. I’ve only been exposed to Ms. Sherazee’s muddy thinking for about five minutes and I’m already thinking why me? And also, Crouching Psychiatrist, Hidden Speech Therapist.

"With such eye-opening statistics it is sad to see that mental illness remains a “stigma or mark of shame”. This is also one of the reasons behind the neglect of these individuals even though according to a 2007 study published in the Lancet medical journal, mental illness makes up about 14 per cent of global disease, more than cancer or heart disease."

What is the Lancet medical journal? Why is it being quoted at me now? Why would I care what some scholarly tome says when I already know what the (say it with me) speech therapist thinks?

"“The US versus THEM attitude of social exclusion adds to the myths and issues that are present surrounding mental illness,” explains Dr Haider Ali Naqvi, a consultant psychiatrist. “Society has common names for people with illnesses – loony, nutcase, charia, pagal and psycho. This is then added by their general behaviour and attitude towards those are different,” he added.

Interestingly Dr Naqvi added that people, even those who are well educated, seem to know more about physical illnesses than psychological ones. In fact when they do witness someone with a mental disorder they resort to black magic and prefer to go to quacks than trained professionals for help."

Yes Ms. Sherazee the Us vs. THEM approach to people with mental illness is a bad, sad thing. It alienates, marginalizes and makes it more difficult to address an issue that, as you pointed out earlier, affects a large number of people across the world. You know what else doesn’t help? Your ignorance, lack of focus, and constant harping on extreme cases that cement the very mythology you presumably want to combat. It is not interesting that Dr. Naqvi pointed out that people tend to know more about physical illnesses than psychological ones. What is interesting is the line ‘when they do witness someone with a mental disorder they resort to black magic.’ Because, you know, everyone who has a mental illness is visibly deficient and apt to chew on the furniture.

"Not all mental illnesses are biological or genetic, some stem from environmental or lifestyle choices e.g. financial woes or drug and alcohol abuse causing – severe – depression, respectively. Doctors attribute a very high risk of mental illness where drug and alcohol abuse is involved. Drug Free Pakistan 2008 statistics show at least five million people in the country are drug users. However, a bigger problem now is the easy access and availability of alcohol in the country. Excessive use affects not only the drinker biologically with liver damage but the family emotionally as it may have to suffer violent behaviour. “I cancelled my wedding with only a month left,” said Sara (not her real name). “My fiancée used to drink a lot. At first I didn’t pay much attention to his aggressive demeanor but then one day he pushed me during an argument and I fell down the stairs and got hurt pretty badly.” That was the day Sara decided she could not deal with her fiancée’s illness any more. “He wasn’t a bad person, it was just when he drank, he lost control of himself.” Dealing with an alcoholic is a full-time job, especially when the person is “totally dependent on the alcohol and in absolute denial.”"

Right towards the end, the writer decides to muse aloud on the root causes of mental illness. Apparently, not all are biological or genetic. So some are? Should you perhaps have mentioned that when you were talking about the denial some parents feel when they have a special child?

"Some stem from environmental or lifestyle choices." For example not enough space to exercise or commune with something other than concrete? High concentrations of lead in the water? Ceaseless exposure to blood and gore on TV? The stress of a joint family system? Both parents at work all day? Nope. "Financial woes or drug or alcohol abuse."

If you, like me, think this is the bit where solutions and options for the rather drastically disenfranchised people featured above should make a dramatic, if belated, entrance, don’t hold your breath. We are left, instead, with the thought that substance abuse is always a cause rather than a symptom, and that people with mental illnesses exist on the peripheries of society rather than being a faceless, misunderstood part of it. We do not know who they are but we will know them when we see them, from their speech impediments and their uncontrollable rages. They will be the ones who are shunned by their parents. They will be the ones who are dragged to quacks by ignorant relatives. They will be the alcoholic men looming over their sobbing fiancés at the bottom of the stairs. They will never be the special child who hears music when others don’t, the CEO who harnesses his obsessive-compulsive attention to detail into material success, the alcoholic poet who marries lyricism and mysticism, or the artist who pins his heightened sensitivity and capacity for wonder onto canvas before taking his own life.

"Experts say the most important thing is self-awareness and communication, both of which do not come easy and that is when a strong, supportive family or friend is needed the most."

Physician, heal thyself. Editor, wake up.


humairahumaira said...

As usual, excellent post. You guys are so brilliant.

mcphisto said...

Uh oh, Maahnoor Sherazee / Sub-editor will have a lot of explaining to do there.

MSS, that was one *ouch* of a post.

Mahvesh said...

You clearly missed this gem of a blog at the ET site as well: http://blogs.tribune.com.pk/story/1584/life-is-good-with-a-capital-g/

Clearly those at the sensible paper/site think mental illness and chronic depression is all in your head (no pun inteded, I swear) which can be magically wished away with a good cup of latte. Ah, the 'good' life!

Anonymous said...


Sherlock said...

Hmmm. Sorry. That didn't work for me. It really didn't. Pushed it too much, I think.
Reads more like juvenile, sarcasm-laced guffawing than humorous critique. Doesn't deserve to be on pyala, if you ask me.
I think you're still living on the last piece you did on ET's story on the porn industry. That was quality. This, my dear, is pedestrian – of the absolute variety.

Nadir Hassan said...

I have some major issues with this post:

1. The barely-veiled mocking of speech therapists, who actually have an important role to play in the treatment of patients with mental illnesses. As an example, speech therapists help people with bipolar disorder and those who are suffering from post-op depression try and overcome their fear of public interaction. Sure, speech therapists will be part of a multidisciplinary team, and the reporter could have quoted a better source, but by mocking speech therapists three times, MSS has gone way over-the-top in his/her criticism. And since speech therapists do have a role to play in treatment, why is their opinion on the attitude of parents invalid? Surely, she has seen enough cases to form an opinion

2. Misrepresentation of the article:

The article quotes the speech therapist as saying, "While some mothers come out of denial very quickly then they face resistance from not just their family members but also in some cases their husband"

MSS takes "some husbands" to mean "But to date there have been no recorded instances of human fathers."

The article states:

"Not all mental illnesses are biological or genetic, some stem from environmental or lifestyle choices e.g. financial woes or drug and alcohol abuse causing – severe – depression"

Again, the writer has clearly stated she is giving just two examples. It is unfair to then accuse her of claiming she means that "Nope. "Financial woes or drug or alcohol abuse" are the only environmental or lifestyle choices that cause mental illnesses.

I do agree with MSS, though, that there should have been some mention of the fact that the alcohol-depression link is a chicken-and-egg situation that experts haven't been able to solve.

aynalif said...

I agree with some other commentators above - this post has been stretched.

I was really amused when I read:
"I have been thinking about this line very hard for some time now and have come to the conclusion that I don’t understand it. This can mean one of two things. One, that it doesn’t make any sense. Two, that my cognitive development is limited.

I blame my parents denial."

The post should have ended at this point. No need to write a lengthy critique on a bad article.

Who does the subbing of Cafe Pyala? It's your bad. If you are all editors, you need to appoint someone who can use the Del key.

Anonymous said...

methinks the lady doth protest too much. or is it gentleman? either way, that didn't deserve quite the razzing it's been given.

Anonymous said...

I think Nadir here needs to wake up and smell the coffee. The article is incoherent, full of shit and does not belong on the front page of the city section.

Anonymous said...

HAHAHA. muddy indeed. I saw the masterpiece headline yesterday morning and nearly puked. Couldn't bear to read further. Turns out it's highly entertaining.

Anonymous said...

This was an EXCELLENT post! A quirky and humorous read with a deft, sure touch, it encourages the kind of critical thinking Pakistani journalists need to learn. This is precisely the kind of response cubs need to hear from their editors, and MSS did a fantastic job pointing it out.

Some of the responses to this post highlight the other problem with print journalism today, defensive bitchiness. Someone rightly dissects a crap article about mental illness, points out its many flaws, and in response people don't demand editors step up their game or hold the writer of the original accountable for mauling such a sensitive topic, they go off on pyala subbing. Pyala subbing?! Muddy thinking, anyone?

Thank you Cafe Pyala for consistently demanding that Pakistani media people stop producing and accepting mediocrity.

Anonymous said...

OMG! BRILLIANT POST! I have been so disgusted recently with Tribune's work! And also because when they were starting off they point blank refused to go through our CVs, and we found out that they are not hiring students from PU, they'd rather hire snotty sub-editors from KC or some other place. Disgusting yeah?
Serves them right for their snobbish attitude :) Thanks again!

Anonymous said...

Very amusing. But why single out ET? There is enough crap written in Dawn and The News...

Twilight said...

I agree. although CF criticises other media outlets, you guys seem to be really mad at Tribune for some reason. Did one of the pyala-ites get rejected by them too? I wouldn't be surprised if they were. You guys are really really bitter @ times.

MSS said...


I'm not mocking speech therapists. I'm pointing out that speech therapists should not be the FIRST port of call for expert opinions on mental health. It's a little like asking the team physio what's really wrong with the PCB. It isn't enough to accumulate material, one also has to organize it well; placing that quote before the journal and Dr.M undermined the piece. That basic point, I felt, was one worth reinforcing.

Re my 'taking some husbands to mean to mean to date there have been no recorded instances of human fathers', was pointing out that the privilege of sympathy is not extended to the male half of the concerned demographic.

Sure Ms. Sherazee said she was only taking two examples. Was pointing out that a) it might have been better to have given more and b) financial woes and substance abuse are questionable first choices as they perpetuate existing stereotypes.

Hope that addresses some of your concerns.

Thank you all for reading and responding.

Anonymous said...

Thank you for this!

Anonymous said...

Et stories have been brainless since day one. Btw cafe pyala, no news on Pakistan today> Why is that? heard its doing good in Lahore.

AA said...

Pointless to take apart the post itself. The writer of the article obviously has no clue about the differences between mental illnesses, cognitive limitations, addictions etc, and whatever little research she did was unhelpful. This kind of articles are a disservice to the cause of public discussion on mental illnesses. It is infuriatingly irresponsible of ET to touch a sensitive subject so lightly.

And this kind of under researched, half baked, living room musings are printed regularly in the name of articles, in both The News and Dawn magazine. But CPyala ignores them regularly. But hey, it's their blog, not an NGO.

Anonymous said...

well this is what happens when an organization hires poseur-journalists..Serves them right!

J said...

great stuff. perhaps more posts like this could be bring about a much needed improvement in local journalism standards.

Anonymous said...

A sense of professionalism has to be observed at all costs....the ET has too many I-know-more-than-my-heels staffers who think they know journalism more than anyone on the world....ms Mahnoor Sherazee's scrutiny is just a wake up call to every one that (for God's sake) we need to make sense of our articles than just to see our bi-lines in newspapers and rest assured that we are bonafide journalists.
I enjoyed reading CF's rip through because it drives home the point that we need to clear the air from our heads before getting printed....or else, there will be scavengers out there who will rip you apart....Mr Nadir Hasan chooses to jump in the fray and defend his colleague when he should really be drumming some sense into the sub-editor's head....pity

Anonymous said...

Not pyala worthy. It is too much criticism for the sake of criticism it seems.