August 17, 2016

By Bob Carolla


Each day when I browse mental health news, a bizarre headline or story occasionally jumps out. I’m talking about strange or unusual stories that often spark conversations, special interest or amusement. This summer, I’ve seen dozens of bizarre articles, including stories of chickens, demons and Pokémon Go.

In a previous NAMI blog,  4 Wheels. 3 Guys. 2 Months. 1 Purpose, Christine Allen wrote about a “chicken car” that was a hit at NAMI’s National Convention in July. However, I had been tracking that chicken car long before the convention: I started seeing media headlines in Illinois, Ohio, Washington, Idaho, Montana and elsewhere about a car with a huge chicken head on top that was touring the United States to raise awareness about mental health.

“You’re not going to believe this,” I said to coworkers. “A couple of guys are driving around in a giant chicken in the name of mental health!” Only later did I realize that the three college guys who had organized the tour were connected to their local NAMI affiliate.

What does a chicken have to do with mental health? Nothing really, except as Alex Vassiliadis, one of the organizers of the tour, told a reporter in one city: “It’s a fun-loving, quirky way of getting people’s attention. And it leads into a very serious topic with a little bit gentler tone.” And it worked.

Then there were the demons.

An article appeared in The Washington Post: “As a psychiatrist, I diagnose mental illness. And, sometimes, demonic possession” The lead paragraph was as eye-catching as the headline: “In the late 1980s, I was introduced to a self-styled Satanic high priestess. She called herself a witch and dressed the part.” 

The psychiatrist sought to legitimize evil spirits as a possible explanation for some behaviors. He saw his role as not to make a “diagnosis” of demonic possession, but rather to advise clergy when symptoms have “no conceivable medical cause.”

Absolutely bizarre—even more so because it was written by a credentialed practitioner.

I am open-minded on many issues, but something about that article bothered me. His argument was making a case for a position that has been a source of stigma and cruelty imposed on people living with mental illness since before the Dark Ages. Since when has “demonic possession” become acceptable as a default position when there is no conceivable medical cause? 

The Post printed three exceptionally strong letters to the editor following the article’s publication: “The self-possessed psychiatrist should exorcise his delusions.”  One noted that supernatural stories have always been used to fill in what science has not yet explained, while another reminded that some people, including children, sometimes have been murdered by relatives suspecting demonic possession. Unfortunately, that doesn’t mean those letters necessarily appeared in all the other media outlets that picked up and ran the original story.

And finally: Pokémon GO

Whenever a fad sweeps the nation, it is inevitable that people will want to know about any potential mental health angle. Android Head kicked off the discussion with Pokémon GO Is Helping People with Anxiety & Depression, focusing on the benefits of getting outside and getting exercise. But it made a point to say that the game is not an alternative to professional treatment. 

Writing in Fox News Heath, a psychologist gave an even stronger endorsement: One patient told him she had gotten more exercise in one week playing the game than she had in three years. Some risks do exist. The article warned that when people get too engaged in the game, they can get hurt by not paying attention to surroundings: “Spending too much time on the app isn’t healthy either because the user could lose touch with reality.”

Then, Psychology Today published The Psychological Roots of Pokémon Go, taking a deep dive into evolutionary psychology, cognitive fluency, gratification,  dopamine and nostalgia—to name only a few. It’s a serious article—bizarre only in the sense that there’s so much to analyze in the game.

“There is a thin line between having fun with a game and becoming addicted to it,” the article warns. “The problem is that this line starts creating changes in our brain, generating new connections—before we even realize we are addicted.” (That’s like what my parents used to tell me about watching too much television when I was growing up, and my wife probably would agree. Last summer, I binge-watched every episode of every Star Trek television series on Netflix, with the exception of the animated version).

Bizarre stories catch our eyes as we scan headlines. They can get us talking. Some are fun. Some are funny. Some are troubling, or not for the squeamish. But none of them should be dismissed as simply “bizarre”—they usually reflect serious purposes or concerns.

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