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Thursday, April 30, 2009

Help! There's an Epidemic of Anxiety! (Part II)

In my last-post-but-one I slammed the claim that the British are suffering from an epidemic of anxiety disorders. I declared it a myth pushed by the Mental Health Foundation and echoed uncritically by British newspapers (although The Economist has since run a kind-of skeptical piece on it.) But I also promised that there are important lessons to be learned here. So, here we go:

The Mental Health Foundation produced a report, In The Face of Fear, which contains various interesting thoughts about the role of fear in public debates. Here's just one:
Individually we experience both rational and irrational fears that drive our behaviour and fear also drives communities and social policies... Excessive fear poses an enormous burden on our society directly through anxiety related illness, which can be physical as well as mental, and indirectly through inappropriate behaviours such as excessive supervision of children or failure to invest. It also paralyses long term rational planning to deal with key future threats such as global warming by diverting attention to more immediate but less important fears.
This is true. Everyone should be scared of global warming. Most people aren't. They're scared of... well, it varies. Cervical cancer was scary a few weeks ago, before that it was the crisis in child protection services, right now it's the Mexican swine flu crisis - not to mention the economic crisis, the knife crime "crisis" - and that's just England.

I'm not saying that we shouldn't care about these things. I'm worried about Mexican swine flu, and so should you be. Especially you, Simon "The Armchair Virologist" Jenkins. But in the face of crisis after crisis after crisis, it becomes hard to take the really crucial crises, such as global warming, seriously. There's a temptation to see every apparant crisis as just another piece of overblown nonsense in need of "debunking" as Ben Goldacre has just discovered. One could call this "crisis fatigue", but that's not exactly right. We're too fond of crises. There are just too many of them.

This is why the MHF felt the need to be so "creative" with the data. As I explained in Part I of this post, the best available figures show that the prevalence of anxiety disorders in Britain has remained boringly level since at least 2000. The MHF simply ignored those numbers in order to make it look as though we're currently facing an epidemic of anxiety. A crisis.

I wish they hadn't. But I don't really blame them for what they did. They did it because they knew that if they didn't, no-one would care about anything they had to say. In an ideal world they would have said: Although British anxiety and depression levels are probably not rising, and although they're not as high as in some countries, they're still higher than in other countries, so we can and should try harder to reduce them. That's the truth. But the truth doesn't involve a crisis, so it wouldn't have made the headlines, or if it did, no-one would have cared. Thus it is that a report warning (inter alia) about the dangers of scaremongering ended up becoming a prime example of scaremongering.

This is the point where, conventionally, one blames "the media" for only publishing "sensationalist" stories in order to "sell papers". Well, that's all true. But the media don't behave that way just for fun. A sensational story is a good story. People want sensationalist stories. Nothing wrong with that, as such. And there's nothing wrong with caring more about a crisis than about a mere problem. A crisis, by definition, is something that deserves urgent attention.

But the result of this is that today, in order to get attention, a problem has to be a crisis - something which is bad and getting worse, fast. Just being a problem in need of a solution isn't enough. There are too many problems - no-one can possibly care about them all. Whereas if something is a crisis, it might just get a little attention. Hence why the MHF had to do what they did. They needed a crisis, so they created one.

If I were a humanities graduate, I would now start explaining how it's all the fault of our postmodern, "post-historical" condition in which there are no grand narratives or central moral authorities to tell us what to care about, leaving every political or moral cause (and organization) to fend for itself in a Darwinian (or market) struggle for attention (and money) in which the only way to survive is to adopt the language of panic, crisis, and emergency thereby devauling that very discourse in a cultural tragedy-of-the-commons. But I'm a science graduate, so I wouldn't dream of doing that.


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