BOB GARFIELD: We're back with On the Media. I'm Bob Garfield.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: And I'm Brooke Gladstone. Mental health advocates claim that one way to fight the shame that accompanies some disorders is to publicize the vast numbers of people who suffer from them. Of course publicizing those numbers also builds awareness about diseases that people never knew they could have and maybe don't have, although after watching the ads they may think they do. [COMMERCIAL CLIP PLAYS]
MAN: The kids are fine. Why are you always so anxious? *
WOMAN: You worry constantly. Can't we have a relaxing dinner any more? *
FEMALE ANNOUNCER: Chronic anxiety can affect your relationships, your work, your life. If you're one of the millions of people who live with uncontrollable worry, anxiety and several of these symptoms for 6 months or more, you could be suffering from generalized anxiety disorder and a chemical imbalance....
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Brendan KoOerner writes about this aspect of drug marketing in the Mother Jones, and he joins us now. Welcome to the show.
BRENDAN KOERNER: Thanks for having me, Brooke.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Speaking specifically about this general anxiety disorder, what was your reaction when you first saw the ads?
BRENDAN KOERNER:Well it was something I'd never heard of before, and I wondered was this something in circulation in the medical community before these ads started coming around, and I found that it really wasn't. It was, it's more of a-- a recent confection of the psychiatric industry. You look back at a decade ago, there are very, very low prevalence rates quoted in much of the scientific literature about this. All of a sudden you see it bursting on the scene--
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Are you saying there's no such thing as general anxiety disorder?
BRENDAN KOERNER:Well we talk about anxiety disorders, you're getting to one step removed from the tradition of diagnosis you see in the DSM which is kind of the "bible" of psychiatric illnesses. All these categories are kind of the result not of so much of research but more kind of political compromise between psychiatrists that are part of the APA.
BROOKE GLADSTONE:One thing I noticed is that ads for drugs that would help with post traumatic stress disorder and depression seemed to proliferate right after 9/11. Did you notice that phenomenon?
BRENDAN KOERNER: I did. Not only ads. There was a lot of news stories. You saw many, many stories quoting researchers, quoting patient groups, many of them funded by drug makers talking about the problem of PTSD. This is a disorder that for a long time's been associated mainly with, you know, war veterans, people who've experienced very, very horrific trauma directly -- crime victims. And you saw the rhetoric of these campaigns, these news stories being more like anyone without saw this on TV could possibly suffer the after-effects.
BROOKE GLADSTONE:All of this obviously though goes back to the beginning of advertising when people created campaigns for conditions that didn't then exist. We didn't know that our hands would need to be softened by dishwashing detergent until they told us so. Ring around the collar, the infamous feminine deodorant sprays. Are you suggesting that general anxiety disorder is just another form of ring around the collar?
BRENDAN KOERNER: I'm not suggesting that. What I am suggesting is that you're seeing a pool of patients being pursued who probably could benefit from other modes of treatment that would not involve pharmaceuticals. Remember that antidepressants are not benign medications. They have very severe side-effects --everything from irritability to insomnia to sexual dysfunction.
BROOKE GLADSTONE:And the FDA has a regulation that if you mention a drug you have to mention the side-effects. How do the PR firms get around that?
BRENDAN KOERNER: It's pretty intriguing actually. What they do is they don't [so to say ?] go out and just put in an ad saying if you feel this way this drug will make you feel better. What they do is they work through the channels of the mainstream media by co-opting doctors, patient groups, so on and so forth to construct what they call "awareness campaigns" where they basically do it under the guise of saying we want to make people aware of this problem. The unspoken message of course is we want to make people aware of that our drug that we work for can help people with this problem.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: And in your article you outline how the advertisers' perspective seeps into the news coverage. How gullible is the news?
BRENDAN KOERNER:Well-- it's kind of depressing really because you have newspapers and magazines on very strict, tight deadlines. They have to have a certain percentage of their pages devoted to health issues, and the easiest way to get health, public health stories is through large PR agencies hired by drug makers that will come in with a press release or a press person calling you and saying look, there's a problem that we've been monitoring; here's a doctor at such and such university who's been studying, and it's a terrible epidemic -- interview that person. Oftentimes the reporter doesn't realize the influence that these drugmakers have over these university-based studies.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Do you worry a lot?
BRENDAN KOERNER: [LAUGHS] Well I'm a journalist. [LAUGHTER] It's our job to worry.
BROOKE GLADSTONE:Cause when I first saw that ad, it was a different one from the one we just played, and it has the person saying "I worried all the time. I kept worrying about the same thing. It would keep me up nights. It would interfere with my work." And you know I just got up and announced to my kids -- God! Everybody feels that way! And they just looked at me and said -- No they don't. [LAUGHS]
BRENDAN KOERNER: Well, maybe they don't, but that's the trick. The trick is that a lot of people do feel that way, and once you hear that that may be abnormal or need treatment, that plants a seed in your mind that maybe I should go in and ask about this. Maybe I'm not normal cause I worry too much.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Well, Brendan Koerner, thank you very much.
BRENDAN KOERNER: Thanks for having me.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Brendan Koerner is a contributing writer for Mother Jones Magazine.
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