I am a newspaper reporter and I have been committing journalism for about 30 years. After covering everything from parades to executions, I now specialize in computer-assisted reporting – CAR. Sounds boring but when you consider that just about everything is now stored in a spreadsheet or database, it’s how journalism is – or should be – done these days.
So, I acquire data, usually from government agencies, crunch numbers, look for trends and anomalies and then investigate what I have found. Sounds pretty straight forward. Numbers don’t lie, right?
Wrong. Numbers can be twisted and taken out of context just like quotes and headlines. Here is an example I see over and over when it comes to reporting on the use of antidepressants and other mental health drugs.
The premise of the story is that psychiatric medications are over-prescribed. Data showing the number of prescriptions written for certain medications or sales data prove it. Then you see a chart of prescription trends over time and the line goes up and up and up.
The numbers are accurate. However, it’s only fair if you examine the reasons why the data show this spike. Those of us on antidepressants, mood stabilizers or other psychiatric medications can tell you that it can take dozens or prescriptions of different drugs at different dosages to get the right mix. The doctor writes a 30-day prescription for a drug but after 10 days the side effects are too much and you stop taking that drug. Or, your doctor writes a 30-day prescription for another medication but after a weeks it’s obvious that the dosage is too high. So, you stop taking that prescription and the doctor writes another prescription at a lower dose.
This can go on for months or even years. And a drug that may have worked well for several years stops working and the process starts all over again. New drugs come onto the market. Your doctor prescribes the new drug and it doesn’t work or it works well and you stop taking the medication you were on, even though you have a month’s worth of pills remaining.
The data are going to show hundreds of pills prescribed but in reality you may only have taken several dozen. Many of us have drawers of meds that didn’t work. Is it fair to say you have been over-medicated? The data sure shows it.
Here is another story that really ticked me off. A couple of years ago studies were released showing traces of antidepressants were found in fish. The data were accurate. Traces of the drugs were getting into lakes, rivers and the ocean every time someone on these drugs flushed the toilet. Most municipal water treatment plants do not remove these drugs.
Columnists and cartoonists had a field day with this revelation. No wonder fish are so mellow and happy! Blah. Blah. Blah. But what about other drugs? Did anyone bother to test fish for traces of Liptor? And if traces of Lipitor were found in fish, would we see cartoons ab0ut fish with low cholesterol?
All I am saying is we need to think twice when mental illness makes headlines. Ask questions about these stories. Whatever you do, don’t get me started on the media coverage of Catherine Zeta Jones’ or Charlie Sheen’s alleged hypomania!
Photo by Ivan Walsh, available under a Creative Commons attribution license.
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Last reviewed: 18 May 2011