Psychiatrists Need To Write for the Public: Here Is Why—and How

October 30, 2020
Arash Javanbakht, MD

Writing for big media outlets like CNN is not always easy, but it is a great opportunity to educate the public.

Why?

I am an academic psychiatrist researching the neurobiology and treatment of anxiety and trauma. I also have a side hobby: I write for the public. My explanatory journalism has appeared in major media outlets including CNN, The Washington Post, Al Jazeera, Smithsonian Magazine, PBS, and many others. I decided to write this piece because I believe psychiatrists can offer a trustworthy voice in this era of misinformation.

I started writing for the public about 4 years ago when The Conversation, a nonprofit website that links academics to the public, asked me to write a Halloween piece on why people want to be scared. I wrote the “The Science of Fright: Why We Love to Be Scared.”1 More than 40 online media websites reposted that article, and multiple radio interviews followed. Nearly 400,000 people have read the piece by now, and even 4 years later I am still getting interview requests on this topic.

This experience introduced me to an outstanding opportunity. As academics we can play an important role in providing reliable knowledge to the public via explanatory journalism: presenting evidence-based scientific facts in a language understandable to laypersons. This is especially important in the current era of medical misinformation, both in the realm of politics and public media.

While scientific literature rarely finds its way to the public’s attention, I believe it is essential to help individuals navigate their way to facts through the mishmash of quackery, politics, and fake science. For example, last year I learned about an awkward medical practice. As someone who studies brain imaging, I was asked to comment when the singer Ariana Grande posted a brain scan on Instagram mentioning PTSD. I then learned there are clinics across the nation that charge thousands of dollars for brain scans that supposedly diagnose mental illness, and then these clinics tailor “treatment” to the specific patient. I corrected the record: “Brain Scans Help Shed Light on the PTSD Brain, but They Cannot Diagnose PTSD.”2

The news media provides a platform for us to bring public attention to important matters. When celebrities talk mental health, we can talk facts. In May of 2019 Howard Stern discussed his childhood trauma with Anderson Cooper on CNN. I was asked to add my expertise, writing an article on how childhood trauma affects adult mental and physical health: “Howard Stern Talks Childhood Trauma, and a Trauma Psychiatrist Talks About its Lasting Effect.”3

Working with media can also be a powerful tool for clinicians. In my clinic, besides pharmacotherapy and psychotherapy, I discuss diet, exercise, and lifestyle with patients. I knew the same information I share every time I see a new patient could benefit tens of thousands with one written piece. So I wrote “To Live Your Best Life, Live the Life You Evolved for.”4 The article reached 90,000 readers via multiple outlets, including CNN.

This kind of work can also be fun. It allows us to talk about culture, movies, and even hobbies: anything that connects psychology and psychiatry to aspects of our daily lives. As an invited blogger for Psychology Today, I wrote a psychological review of the movie “Joker5 and a piece on the mental and physical experience of flying in a fighter jet.6

How?

This work is not very difficult for a scientific writer. Pieces for the media are usually 800 to 1000 words, and you provide citations understandable by laypersons. Putting complicated scientific thinking into language that is scientifically solid but understandable to the public is a great exercise. Editors help clarify the language; as they often are not experts in your field, they can tell you what your audience will not know.

Sometimes editors ask you to comment on breaking news. After the Stoneman Douglas shooting in February 2018, I was asked to write about guns and mental illness, since the president of the United States suggested restricting gun access for individuals with mental illnesses. I was given only a couple of hours to compose my thoughts, as the piece was to be published the next day. Although it was a challenge to write intelligently on such a tight deadline, I took the assignment. It was an important opportunity, because after every mass shooting, mental illness is among the immediate scapegoats. My article “Mental Illness and Gun Laws: What You May Not Know About the Complexities7 has now been read by over 200,000 people. It discusses misconceptions about mental illness and violence, and the complexities of using mental illness as a scapegoat for gun violence. That article was followed by requests to write about the social consequences of mass shootings, so I wrote “What Mass Shootings Do to Those Not Shot: Social Consequences of Mass Gun Violence.”8 The newspaper, radio, and TV interview requests that follow such writing also happen on tight timeframes. But it is important to make the time, because following articles with interviews creates a snowball effect, bringing the voice of science to a larger audience.

When writing for the media, you may find yourself disagreeing with your editor about an important issue: the headline. We often choose what to read online based on the headline, which can be the author’s only shot to capture the reader’s attention. Consequently, editors may push for something exciting, even sensational. It may be a challenge to find a title that is attractive enough but still scientifically solid.

Writing about politics and mental health is difficult, as the writer must keep their own political views in check and remain scientifically neutral. I have written about why it is wrong for politicians to use psychiatric diagnoses as insults9, why psychiatrists should stay out of presidential politics10, and how politicians abuse fear to reduce us to tribalism.11 If you do write politics-related articles, do not read the comments section. In fact, it may be best to ignore the comment section all the time. I learned this lesson the hard way when I wrote a piece titled “Where Is My Xanax Rx? Why Your Doctor May Be Concerned About Prescribing Benzodiazepines.”12 Some comments proved the point of the article.

By writing for the public I have reached over 1 million readers, and many more via radio and TV interviews. I understand that we are already overwhelmed by high patient volume, too much academic work, and tight deadlines. Sadly, academia still does not give the appropriate credit to public education outreach. But that might change, and at the end of the day, a teacher loves to teach! Why not a class of hundreds of thousands?

Dr Javanbakht is director of the Stress, Trauma, and Anxiety Research Clinic and associate professor in the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Neurosciences at Wayne State University School of Medicine.

References

1. Javanbakht A, Saab L. The science of fright: why we love to be scared. The Conversation. October 26, 2017. Accessed October 26, 2020.

2. Javanbakht A. Brain scans help shed light on the ptsd brain, but they cannot diagnose ptsd. The Conversation. April 18, 2019. Accessed October 26, 2020.

3. Javanbakht A. Howard Stern talks childhood trauma, and a trauma psychiatrist talks about its lasting effects. The Conversation. May 31, 2019. Accessed October 26, 2020.

4. Javanbakht A. To live your best life, live the life you evolved for. CNN Health. February 5, 2019. Accessed October 26, 2020.

5. Javanbakht A. Joker: a powerful psychological drama. Psychology Today. November 1, 2019. Accessed October 26, 2020.

6. Javanbakht A. How Flying in a Fighter Jet Affected My Mind and Body. Psychology Today. September 8, 2019. Accessed October 26, 2020.

7. Javanbakht A. Mental illness and gun laws: what you may not know about the complexities. The Conversation. February 26, 2018. Accessed October 26, 2020.

8. Javanbakht A. What mass shootings do to those not shot: social consequences of mass gun violence. The Conversation. November 9, 2018. Accessed October 26, 2020.

9. Javanbakht A, Williams A. Doctors need to speak up against the use of mental illness as an insult. The BMJ Opinion. October 6, 2017. Accessed October 26, 2020.

10. Javanbakht A. Why psychiatrists should not be involved in presidential politics. The Washington Post. January 11, 2018. Accessed October 26, 2020.

11. Javanbakht A. The politics of fear: how it manipulates us to tribalism. The Conversation. March 19, 2019. Accessed October 26, 2020.

12. Javanbakht A. Where is my Xanax Rx? Why your doctor may be concerned about prescribing benzodiazepines. The Conversation. October 18, 2019. Accessed October 26, 2020.