As a health correspondent working for a daily newspaper a number of years ago, there were what was termed by the editor as a ‘disease of the week’ feature. The reference was shorthand for the many awareness weeks we now have; every week we had space for one worthy cause to promote – and there were often several at a time. Some began as a single day and were promoted to take up a full month, some were always worthy of big headlines, while others rarely got a mention.
Health was top of the list of reader interests (only beaten by crime) and the features were an opportunity to raise awareness, tell the stories of those affected and offer up advice that could save a life. It was genuinely a honour to share their story.
But alongside learning the contents of Black’s Medical Dictionary and knowing enough about the NHS to run it, I got a fast education in unpalatable truths. Perceived middle class diseases garnered more column inches. Conditions considered to be self-inflicted were bypassed – unless you got ‘good’ lung cancer (passive smoking or industrial disease) – you were expected to take your limited amount of medicine and die quietly as the low mortality rates went unreported. Editors didn’t want you to write about it, it wasn’t prioritised in research and those with it often accepted their fate, with quiet dignity. Afterall, it was their fault.
When it came to writing features, mental heath was always bottom of the list. Front page headlines were only garnered when things went badly wrong and speaking to mental health service users and telling their stories could be challenging, not only because of their conditions, but because they often saw the media as hostile. Good news stories were brief and buried in the back pages of the newspaper.
Why am I thinking about this at New Year? In January alone we are thinking about liver health, Paget’s disease, sexually transmitted infections, leprosy, cervical cancer and nits – not to mention stopping drinking, veganism and national hug day. I'm not dismissing any of these causes, but perhaps we should consider our priorities.
‘Health was top of the list of reader interests and features were an important opportunity to raise awareness, and tell the stories of those affected and offer up advice that could save a life.’
What ribbon will you wear?