Sunday, July 15, 2012

What's more harmful - Xanax or Channel 7's coverage of mental health?

I'm angry with you, Channel 7. Yesterday I ran my first half-marathon and was on a high. I wanted to write about it - the pain, the achievement, the music, the reasons for and against doing it again. But then I watched Sunday Night's alarmist story on the anti-anxiety drug Xanax. A drug I take.

I don't like being angry, so I'm furious that this trash tabloid journalism made me mad.

I knew as soon as I saw the promo it would rile me and I'd tweet frustratedly, but I couldn't ignore it. I guess Channel 7 will count that as a win.

The premise was, basically, Xanax is more addictive than Heroin, it destroys lives and should be banned. Oh, and traces of it were found in the blood of Heath Ledger, Whitney Houston and Michael Jackson when they died! (Well yes, among various other things, but let's not mention that)

It was an irresistable hook and seemed to shock a few people judging by responses on Twitter. Fear-based outrage sells almost as well as sex. The more - dare I say - irrational responses to the show's question of whether Xanax should be banned were comments like: "yep! aniety (sic) can be helped if people were allowed to relax and people showed care and concern more.", "Xanax is scary! Doctors should be held responsible for giving out a drug that is known to be more addictive that heroin", and my favourite "yes! We lost Michael Jackson from it".

Fortunately, just as many tweeters defended rational consideration of the issue, many of whom had actually dealt with anxiety. It was a pleasant irony for us to be the (at least relatively) rational ones.

The misleading emotional use of dead celebrities, was just the first giveaway of a rubbish story. At no point did it address the dangers of mixing drugs without medical advice, which happened in each of those cases. I suppose truthful (respectful?) representation of those tragic deaths, rather than insinuating one drug's responsibility, would lessen the emotional affect of mentioning them.

They also spoke of side-effects like blackouts in absolute terms as though they happen to everyone who takes it. I've never had a blackout in four years on a relatively high dosage. Maybe I'm on the placebo.

Not only was there no test of the premise (just run with it), there was no acknowledement of the many lives Xanax has undoubtedly saved from suicide, or helped get back on track from various levels of anxiety. Nope, not even considered. Has that actually happened ever? You wouldn't have thought so.

There's no doubt we need to monitor the use of medications. And I don't doubt the genuine suffering those interviewed have experienced. Some drugs are addictive and can have serious side-effects, which is why you need to take them responsibly under professional advice (and I'm not suggesting these people didn't).

But if you are going to call for a ban on a product that manages the suffereing of severe anxiety, you should at least explore some alternative treatments. The report didn't even look properly at why people are prescribed Xanax, other than bandying about the word anxiety.

How many people today will be fearful of the drug and consider stopping usage (a very dangerous course of action)? How many will resist advice from doctors to take it as a result of this unbalanced reporting, possibly preventing recovery? How many unqualified people will advise family or friends to stop taking this "horrendous drug", out of concern but based on ill-informed fear? That could be dangerous.

This was not a story for public interest or information, but a grab for ratings.This kind of sensationalist reporting just fuels hysteria or makes thinking people dismissive, it serves no real purpose. Which is sad, whether or not there is any validity in the concerns raised.

I am not here to defend Xanax. It's worked for me, but I had a period of trial-and-error with other anti-depressants first. I value how it helped me recover from a pretty dark period and start to manage severe anxiety, but feel like cognitive therapies and activities like yoga and running have been the things that really changed the way I think. So I'm hopeful of coming off it sooner than later. I never really liked the idea of a drug that affected my brain, though it hasn't stopped me consuming alcohol.

We should look at the role of medication in various areas. I personally tend to agree that we live in an age of over-prescription, but I'm not an expert, and many people need these drugs to live a normal life.

As a comsumer, I want the media and government to hold the pharmaceutical industry to account. Just as much as I want to see responsible reporting on mental health that doesn't induce irrational fear or reinforce stigma. I don't want to see reporting that prevents people getting the help they need.

Xanax is potent. It works fast. Am I addicted? Well I've never craved it (like I crave yoga after a few days) and I'd deal better going without it for a day than Facebook or Twitter, but if I miss a few doses I do experience physiological side-effects that are not fun, as well as an increase in anxiety. Is it more addictive than Heroin? I don't know, I've never had reason to take Heroin. I do know that when I come off Xanax, it will be very slowly and under the supervision of my GP and psychologist.

I'd rather see Channels 7 and 9 banned from covering mental health issues until they can drag themselves from reporting on extremes and cover them in a fair, considered way, than have Xanax banned. They've demonstrated that they either do not care or do not understand the serious and complex nature of mental illness.

Nobody will avoid depression or anxiety as a result of last night's shameful current affairs story. Hopefully not too many are thrown into mental chaos by it.

But well done Sunday Night, you have set us back some way. I hope you made some money from it.

The best advice is: be sensible. That goes for people taking Xanax as well as media talking about it.

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