Over the next three posts, we’re going to look at media coverage in relation to mental health through the following questions: What are the general effects of the deluge of information media coverage feeds to the public? How does the all-too-often coverage of tragic events affect those who’ve experienced trauma? Media coverage and mental health: how the news stigmatizes mental illness and misrepresents the vast majority of those who seek mental health care.

High profile media reports of horrific events seem to come in a nearly steady stream through TV news and social media. What is the impact on our well being of this frequency, intensity and sheer volume of dire news?

“You get the feeling that horrible things are getting closer and closer to you, which is not true,” says David Brunick, Doctor of Behavioral Health and newly appointed CEO of Maria Droste Counseling Center. “This is something that affects us all; it’s not exclusive to those suffering from an anxiety disorder.” Brunick explains that he was glued to a TV for about a month following 9/11, looking for answers that weren’t there. “Scrutinizing every detail and statement did not provide any peace or closure or sense of security,” he says, acknowledging that this was an important realization for him.

Media coverage of tragic events is necessary to make us aware of what’s happening and to provide information regarding resources and assistance to victims and their families. But how much is too much?

Researchers at the University of California-Irvine studied the effects of watching media coverage of the Boston Marathon bombing. They found that exposure to six or more hours per day during the week following the bombing could be linked to more acute stress than actually being at or near the marathon. People who viewed that much coverage were nine times more likely to report high acute stress than those exposed to less than an hour per day.

The study’s authors, E. Alison Holman, PhD., and Roxane Cohen Silver, PhD., concluded that repeated viewings of violent images could keep an event alive and present in the mind, even long after it has ended. There is no psychological benefit to this, they reported, but there is a risk that acute stress could turn into a chronic form of stress. (Nauert, 2013)

Six hours of television news may seem excessive, however, statistics show that the average American household has a television on for nearly seven hours a day. During high profile events, that exposure can translate to many more hours of coverage than usual. Consider the many ways people stay informed: social media, mobile news apps, cell phone alerts –it’s actually quite difficult to ‘unplug’ from current events. Jessica Hamblen, PhD., reviewed research conducted after several terrorist attacks (including the Oklahoma City bombing and the attacks on September 11, 2001) as well as studies of people who live in areas of ongoing conflict. She explains that most likely, different household members are watching at different times, or the television is on while they are doing other things such as cooking, yet, during periods of ongoing crisis news coverage, people are inadvertently being exposed to many hours of coverage of traumatic events. “Children in most American households are probably being exposed to images of traumatic events for many hours each day even though no one has made a conscious decision to expose these children to these images,” Hamblen writes. (Hamblen, 2014)

News reports can trigger a stress response in someone who has experienced trauma in the past (even as far back as childhood). Watching or hearing details of an event that does not directly involve the person can still recreate his or her first-hand trauma experience. This type of trigger creates an experience that feels as real as the initial trauma. The more exposure to trauma someone has, the more likely they are to develop chronic PTSD (Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder), says Dr. Rachel Yehuda (Charles & Yehuda, 2013).

Media coverage of disasters or acts of violence can be seductive. We may watch in an effort to find explanations that will make us feel safe, or to gather information that will prepare us for a similar situation in the future. Or, we may simply be drawn to it in the same way we are drawn to action movies. Regardless of why we watch, however, research has found a correlation between watching media coverage of traumatic events and stress symptoms.

Stress impacts every aspect of our lives, physically, mentally, and emotionally. Being aware of what and how much information we are consuming is definitely in our best interest.

Here are a few things to keep in mind the next time a tragic event takes over the headlines:

1. Limit the amount of time you spend engaging in media coverage.

This may seem obvious, but it is surprising how quickly the time adds up, especially when you have the TV or radio on in the background or you are following events on social media.

2. Keep the story in perspective.

When something negative usurps the news coverage, it can seem as if it is the only story in the world. The truth is, for every catastrophe, there are millions of positive stories of compassionate, loving people doing good.

3. Remember, you have control.

When watching these events unfold, try to separate the facts of what happened from how the reporting makes you feel about what happened. You have control over the quality and quantity of information you consume, and usually have the coping skills to manage your emotional response to a particular event.

 4. Seek help if necessary.

If you find that you cannot turn off the coverage, that it is impacting your ability to participate in your normal daily activities, and/or you are experiencing anxiety and stress beyond what your coping skills alone can manage, consider reaching out to a therapist. (If you are in the Denver area, Maria Droste Counseling Center can arrange an initial consultation with one of our therapists. Give our Intake Office a call today at 303-756-9052 ext 127. For information on our practitioners, visit our online directory.)

Tuning in to news coverage of tragic events is normal. It is one of the ways we attempt make sense of the world, especially when the situation seems senseless. Too much focus on the tragedy, however, can have long-term, unintended consequences. Over the next few weeks, we will continue to explore this topic with our next blog post, exploring how sensational media coverage affects those who’ve experienced similar trauma.

For the full series of posts in this topic, please see the links below:

How to Keep the Media from Increasing Your Stress: Three-Part Series
Part I – Media Coverage of Tragic Events
Part II – Sydney’s Story
Part III – Media Coverage and Mental Health Stigma

Nauert PhD, R. (2013). Too Much Trauma Coverage Can Be More Stressful Than Being There. Psych Central. Retrieved on August 13, 2015, from http://psychcentral.com/news/2013/12/11/too-much-trauma-coverage-can-be-more-stressful-than-being-there/63155.html

Hamblen PhD, J. (2014). Media Coverage of Traumatic Events: Research on Effects. National Center for PTSD. Retrieved on August 13, 2015, from http://www.ptsd.va.gov/professional/trauma/basics/media-coverage-traumatic-events.asp

Charles, K. and Yehuda R. (2013). Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder Affects A Wide Range of People, Not Just Soldiers. The Daily News. Retrieved on August 24, 2015, from http://www.nydailynews.com/life-style/health/ptsd-affects-people-military-article-1.1393098