Quelling the Ebola Panic4 min read
If you look at the big picture, to date the Ebola virus has been primarily contained to West Africa. Yes, there have been cases reported outside of West Africa and yes, it is a very serious disease. However, the panic and anxiety over its threat potential is rapidly spreading globally through contact with the Internet, TV, radio, newspapers and magazines.
Recently we spoke with Dr. Suzanne Black, a clinical psychologist (and former neuropsychologist) licensed in NY State, CA and in France who served as a professor of psychiatry at University of California, San Francisco Medical School. Currently, Dr. Black works internationally with patients in private practice, specializing in medical / health psychology, cross cultural psychology and mood disorders.
“The responsible media coverage that is out there has emphasized repeatedly that Americans’ panic about Ebola needs to stop,” said Dr. Suzanne Black. “They are engaging in demystifying Ebola by repeatedly reporting on the hard facts about Ebola and they are also discussing the myths circulating about the virus, and thereby normalizing the panic about Ebola. But, some media sensationalize (Ebola). Their programs get repeated and the images and coverage fuels the panic.”
The reality of media today is that a hugely disproportionate amount of time will be spent talking about dire pandemic scenarios, rather than telling viewers that it’s very difficult to contract Ebola. Media critics can argue this is irresponsible all they want, but the media is a business, and hysteria drives ratings, which drives revenue. So this behavior by the media is going to continue.
Over the last few years, broadcast news has turned into an updated version of talk radio, in which it’s completely acceptable (and even expected) to pose a hypothetical question, and then debate that hypothetical as if it’s a fact for the next few hours. Example: “What if we had an Ebola outbreak in New York City? New York is completely unprepared; people would have to be confined to their homes for weeks!”
“The best thing media outlets can do to help lessen the general panic about the virus,” Dr. Black stated, “is to keep reporting the facts and dispelling the myths about Ebola. That helps people redirect their fear.”
“The concept of confirmation bias is that when we selectively attend to a concept – such as Ebola in this case, a deadly virus which invokes fear – we direct our energies and focus on Ebola, and have a natural tendency to ignore and try to refute any information that serves as evidence against the threat of contracting Ebola. We are then using our emotions to estimate the potential for risk of contracting the virus.”
There are also some things people can do to calm their fears about Ebola. “Keep things in realistic perspective as best you can, which will hopefully reduce your anxiety about Ebola,” Dr. Black recommended, adding that you should watch, listen to and read responsible media outlet’s coverage.
Dr. Black directed us to this interesting concept Psychology Today: How Panic Spreads with Fears of Ebola; The Misperception of Risk:
Ebola needs to be de-mystified and the public needs to educate themselves as to the facts about Ebola. Ebola is transmitted vis direct contact with boldly fluids of the Ebola infected person – blood, excrement, vomit, saliva , i.e., the infected person’s boldly fluids must enter a mucous membrane such as the eye, nose, mouth, etc. of the person in proximity. It is not an airborne virus.
Only one person has died in the U.S. from Ebola (who contracted the virus from Liberia) — in a country of over 325 million people. The odds of dying from Ebola are exceedingly low, however, the human mind does not handle probabilities very well.
Dr. Black’s advice is this: “Pay attention to the real immediate threats to your health, the more immediate risks to your well-being, like unhealthy eating , overconsumption of alcohol , engaging in risky behaviors , not going for regular medical exams, etc. Be a little bit more cognitive about what is going on with Ebola. ‘Use your head.’ Think before you act or react. The more probable threat is you – how you neglect yourself perhaps and do not necessarily adequately pay healthy medical attention to your well-being. Though the threat of Ebola is out there, and it is very real , and worrisome, the anxiety and even panic are understandable — know that and don’t reproach yourself for what we do naturally as human beings. However, the probability of any one of us contracting the virus are exceedingly remote in this country. Keep things in realistic perspective as best you can, thereby reducing your anxiety about Ebola.”
Dr. Black has consulted for international treaty organizations such as the OECD, UNESCO, IMF, NATO, CEB, with various embassies such as the American Embassy of Paris , and organizations such as The American Hospital of Paris, and university study abroad programs. Her International clinical psychology private practice offers support in-person and via video conferencing (e.g., Skype) with adults, adolescents, couples, groups , and consultation practice / supervision with mental health professionals. You can see more of Dr. Black’s work on Moodsurfing (www.moodsurfing.com) and by following her on Twitter @drsablack.
Photo from European Commission DG ECHO.