More love, less fear
Effective communication as a vaccine for panic
January 27th, 2020

This evening I received a very friendly and courteous cold-call randomly from a research student at University of Saskatchewan, identifying herself as conducting a telephone survey of Ontarians funded by Canada’s nuclear regulator, about the general population of Ontario’s perception of radiation risk.

I found this entirely timely given the false alarm we recently were forced to mentally digest concerning the Pickering nuclear generating station. I was more than happy to lend my voice and thoughts to the study.

On a day-to-day, I admit I worry very little about radiation. I know there is useful and very beneficial radiation such as in medicine and the like.

Yet complacency is not the way to safety and protection of the environment and people.

What worries me more than anything, is the physiological lasting effects of panic. I think I honestly worry about that more than I worry about any health or environmental effects of human-created radiation.

As an undergraduate media studies student at The University of Guelph-Humber in Toronto, I (barely) completed my thesis (one week to deadline I emailed my supervisor asking what the *minimum* acceptable word count was)… lowest mark of my academic life, mainly because I bit off a topic more ambitious than I could cover in the scope of an honours thesis. My topic was studying the evidence of lasting physiological effects of panic, and media and communicators’ role in allaying that panic through effective public messaging – all in the lens of what went wrong in the healthcare sector’s communications response to SARS, the first global epidemic of the instant information era where information conveyed through the media travelled faster than the virus itself.

I called the thesis:

“The Missing Vaccine: Effective communications as an essential element in reducing epidemic-related panic in a globalized world.”

I thought of the relevance of this topic in light of the sheer amount of panic we have been bombarded with in the first month of 2020! And it’s not ending. I think our Canadian healthcare communication and public health system is getting MUCH better at working to combat panic today than it was during SARS, and media has matured too, despite the increase in the global speed of news and the total breadth of ways we receive information today…

Yet, when we’re faced with panic such as what Ontarians felt the morning of Jan 12 when the accidental radiological incident alert went out to all our smartphones, there are damaging, lasting personal physiological effects that occur.

Those responsible for mass information, and maybe more importantly, those with responsibility for the causes of potential panic (healthcare communicators, those in dangerous industries such as the nuclear industry, those managing emergency response and communication, and our media) have a very important responsibility for protecting health – including our mental health!

This is a line from my thesis: “whenever health is in jeopardy, there is a profound psychological reaction. The psychological consequence of the fear during crises can be more widespread and much longer-lasting than the initial epidemic.”

I went on to ask: “How do professional communicators respond?”

“In times of crises, individuals look to their leading institutions for leadership, guidance and advice. This healthcare leadership must be communicated. In this lies the answer to the only possible cure for the mental reaction to epidemics: that communication must be looked upon as being a vital vaccine to reduce panic. Clear, informed, trusted, timely and streamlined communication is crucial.”

We’ve come a long way since SARS. The very fact that we have some sort of (imperfect) alert system that pings our phones is revolutionary.

“In the case of SARS, media eventually criticized healthcare leadership itself for its lack of information and disclosure.”

I think we’re, in Canada, beyond that – not perfectly, but much better at sharing information quickly.

This didn’t work super great on a Sunday morning in Ontario when we all got a dose of non-radioactive panic.

But we’re getting better – I hope, at least, in the face of very real threats to our well-being and our minds.

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