Troubling Times | The Impact of Fake News on Mental Health

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If you’ve scrolled through social media in the last few days you may have seen a news article going around the mental health community about a Dutch teenager who committed suicide via euthanasia. The tale it paints is tragic, and not entirely void of fact, but several major news outlets, including The New York Times, have come forward with corrections to the story in hopes of bringing light to such a serious issue. As it turns out, the young woman, Noa Pothoven, was not euthanized but instead had stopped eating, drinking and had refused further treatment, seeking only to pass away. Her story is fraught with struggle, but regardless of your stance on assisted suicide the fact of the matter is that many news outlets big and small went out of their way to report on this young woman’s life story, and capitalized on the fact that her situation was so controversial. Clickbait culture has been a cash cow for media outlets since the dawn of gossip magazines, but what sort of impact is it having on real people and communities in the age of viral news?

This isn’t the first time a story about mental health has made headlines and it won’t be the last, at least not until we finally take a hard look at the problems with mental health care and society’s views on mental wellness. Stories like Noa’s however, when handled incorrectly, only serve to muddle the conversation. Instead of taking time to point out to people that Ms. Pothoven had sought out treatment before deciding to end her life, and therefore pointing out how the mental health community had inadvertently failed her and sparking conversation about that, these news stories point the finger at assisted suicide as the real culprit. In framing her death as the result of her country having open, comprehensive euthanasia laws, it sparks a debate about whether euthanasia is an acceptable medical procedure. Because there is no clear right or wrong answer, the truth gets lost in the scuffle.

The notion that our news media cares more about their view counts and clicks than reporting the truth is troubling, but what it implies about the future of journalism is far worse. If we cannot rely on our news to tell us what’s happening in the world, providing all of the facts and letting us draw our own conclusions on those facts, then what is the purpose of the news cycle? In an age of news that favors spinning stories and manipulating the narratives toward a political agenda, it stops becoming “news” and starts to become “propaganda.” Regardless of where you fall on the political spectrum, being unable to trust the media is the first, slippery step toward an Orwellian nightmare.

The impact that news stories like this specifically may have on individuals is almost more terrifying. Mental health and wellness are crucial elements of the human experience, and when you live in a society that undervalues these things you end up with a whole lot of people struggling in the dark, feeling as though they have nowhere to turn for help. Not only that but seeing stories about people who felt so hopeless that they eventually gave up is not a shining aspiration to glorify, but a somber tale to warn against. In only reporting on the negative stories, and in making this story about the fight for and against what many struggling people might see as their only option, you set a dangerous precedent for people who are looking for a way out. In spinning the story, you create a conversation that only goes in circles, rather than opens the door to real solutions. Not to mention heightening the stigmas and anxieties around mental health in real people around the world.

If you or anyone you know is considering suicide, suffers from depression or is severely anxious, upset and needs someone willing to listen, there are people that would love to help you.

Crisis Text Line:

         Text START to 741741 anytime about any problems you may be having.

The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline can be reached 24/7 at: 1-800-273-8255


Sarah Nowack is a senior professional writing major who is minoring in graphic design. Her days are spent haunting the local library, consuming copious amounts of coffee, playing unpopular video games, and making terrible puns. She can be found at @battlerouge on Twitter and @shiverbound on Instagram.

Tags: euthenasia, mental health, Mental wellbess, Noa, Pothoven, suicide, The New York Times, TNYT