I’ve often bitched about TV (and, I assume, magazine) ads for psychotropics. I’ve said that I despise the fact that they make the entire public their own experts on what they need and shills for “Big Pharma.” I’ve complained that they hamper doctors by encouraging consumers to “ask if drug X is right for you” and to accept no substitutes. I’ve also said that the ads present unrealistic pictures of very serious mental conditions by making depression, for example, no worse than the flu or a hangover.
Nonetheless, I’ve decided that drug commercials do have some beneficial purposes and effects. They aren’t all evil after all. They send messages to the viewing public that are actually positive. These messages contradict the prevailing public conception that people with mental illnesses are different from other people – that the entirety of their lives is taken over by their illness. People with bipolar disorder change from the depths of despair to uncontrollable, laughing lunacy within the span of hours or even minutes. People with OCD are picture-straighteners and tile-counters. People with schizophrenia are violent criminals or raving crazies, often hospitalized for life. None of these brain illnesses can be treated, according to the general wisdom.
Modern drugs have improved people’s lives and improved the general public’s conception of what mental illness is like.
First, more of the commercials now present understandable views of what some mental illnesses are like. They do this primarily when they use analogies or metaphors. Bipolar mania is like climbing a house of cards that is destined to collapse inevitably at some point. Depression is like darkness, and medications can lessen it by bringing light. They even make the symptoms and side effects more understandable: tardive dyskinesia, for example, is depicted with actual twitches, intractable movements, and mobility issues.
Also, the ads do emphasize that there are treatments, if not actual cures, for disorders that the general public views in a stereotypical way. Take schizophrenia, for example. Most people associate schizophrenia with homelessness, psychosis, and/or raving unintelligibly. Yes, those are sometimes the consequences of the disorder, but they’re far from the whole story. I’ve seen commercials for schizophrenia medications that show a man with a family playing guitar, two women with schizophrenia calmly discussing their symptoms, and a comparison of daily pills and twice-yearly injections for treatment. They humanize an illness that too many view as intractable and untreatable.
I stand by most of my criticism of ads for psych meds. They are shallow and simplistic. They do promote self-diagnosing and self-prescription and demands on doctors. They minimize the good that talk therapy can do, concentrating instead on medical and pharmaceutical interventions. At the same time, though, these ads promote more accurate, healthier views of mental illnesses, even the most severe. They portray people who have the illnesses as having alternatives, socially productive lives, and “normal” interactions with others despite their psychiatric conditions.
I have no scientific evidence to support this theory, but my guess is that after viewing these ads, often several times a day, a poll would reveal changes in attitude. That, combined with the public service announcements about depression and even ads for telemedicine therapy sessions, may indeed make it more likely that people who live with these conditions without realizing it to better understand their own possible mental problems and those of their friends and family, and to have greater empathy toward them.
And those are good things. May the trend continue.