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Why and How Mental Health Professionals and the Media Should Work Together

By Paramjit Joshi, M.D.

As a mental health professional it is crucial to gain media-savvy so that when disasters strike you are prepared to respond to media questions and can be proactive in using the media to convey urgent messages.

There are many benefits of working with the news media:

  • Preparation—Prior to a disaster occurring, there is an opportunity to educate the community, especially parents, about ways to be ready for disasters. It is also a good time to communicate what the appropriate information channels are so that when a disaster does occur, parents understand where to get the most reliable information.
  • Public Education—Either prior to or in response to a disaster, the media is an effective and efficient mechanism for the distribution of accurate information. Whether the media is in print (newspaper, magazine, or online), television, or radio format, information about what has occurred, what the public may need to do to respond, and effective interventions to use to help children and others cope with the disaster can be accomplished effectively.
    • Many community members, parents, and school teachers, commonly have questions about how to care for children immediately after a disaster strikes. Frequently, these concerns do not require a visit to a professional, but they can easily be answered through appropriate public education and through the use of the media.
    • Many concerns focus on what are normal reactions and when should a parent worry about a child. The media can facilitate by hosting interviews or disseminating information about normal reactions to disaster and developmentally appropriate responses. Likewise, the media can also provide simple tips about ways that an adult care giver, such as a parent, can be supportive of the traumatized child and effectively help bring about healing and recovery.
  • Extend Your Reach—Many mental health professionals are overburdened and overextended. There are not enough mental health providers to handle the day-to-day mental health needs of children, let alone when a disaster strikes. Working with the media helps to extend the reach of the mental health professional.
  • Overcome Stigma—While most children and adults will recover over time, we know that there are some who will need the assistance of a mental health professional. Developing messages that focus on when it is important to seek help from a mental health professional can be part of a comprehensive approach to address stigma of seeking professional help.

Cultivate a Working Relationship with the News Media:

  • Connect with your public relations department before events occur. Once the public relations department is comfortable with you and understands your expertise, you will be contacted when an expert is needed.
  • Frequently, the media makes requests at what feels like the very last minute! The nature of news stories is that they can occur at any time and it is therefore important to be responsive when you receive a media request, as it is your opportunity to provide accurate and expert information.
  • If you will be on live television, send bullet point to the studio ahead of time so that they can display those messages during the interview.
  • If you are part of an organization, consider inviting the media in your local area for a roundtable discussion to learn about mental health issues and disasters.
  • As you develop educational resources, send the publications to the media so that they can begin to build a library of accurate materials to use and refer to when disasters strike.

Core Messages:

Prior to a disaster occurring, it is helpful to share messages through the media pertaining to developing family emergency plans. Parents who are aware of physical and emotional needs that a child may have during stressful times can plan for ways that they can provide for these needs. If children are old enough, the family emergency plan can be developed together with the children. The plan should also provide ways for parents to get support that they will need to help cope during these stressful times.

The following are some suggested messages to share with the media following a disaster. No matter what kind of disaster has occurred, these are relevant and important to community healing.

  • Turn the TV Off. Children who view media coverage of the disaster may be re-traumatized and view the coverage as though the disaster is happening again and again. It is important to reduce and limit the amount of television coverage of the event that a child sees. Most importantly if a child does watch the coverage on television, a parent or other caregiver should watch with the child and discuss and answer questions as to what has been seen.
  • Provide Reassurance Parents and other caregivers should provide reassurance and communicate to their children about ways that they are keeping their children safe.
  • Share What’s Normal, What’s Not, and When to Seek Help What normal reactions are to disasters should be conveyed, with a particular emphasis on developmentally appropriate reactions and symptoms of stress, so that parents and others can be better at differentiating when a child needs professional assistance and when the parents may just need to provide additional support, comfort, and reassurance to the child.
  • Share Warning Signs and How to Seek Help Warning signs and parameters for abnormal reactions can also be shared through the media to educate the public about when to worry about children who may not be recovering from the disaster and may need professional support to help foster the healing process. Information about where to find a qualified child and adolescent psychiatrist, psychologist, social worker, counselor, or pediatrician should be provided.
  • Maintain Routines An emphasis on routines is essential to convey through the media. Getting back to family routines, as best as possible, is crucial for helping to establish a feeling of safety and normalcy for children.
  • Foster Expression Encourage parents to spend time with children after a disaster and engage in activities such as play, art, music, drama, creative writing, and movement activities that allow children to manage their emotions and communicate in non-verbal ways about how they are feeling. These activities can also support enhanced communication and bonding between children and parents as well as promote resiliency, healing, and recovery within the family.