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(p. 297) Health Education Through Broadcasting 

(p. 297) Health Education Through Broadcasting
(p. 297) Health Education Through Broadcasting

Donald W. Winnicott

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Subscriber: null; date: 23 April 2018

Originally published in Mother and Child, 1957, 28. Also published in C. Winnicott, C. Bollas, M. Davis, & R. Shepherd (Eds.), Talking to parents (pp. 1–6). Reading, MA: Addison-Wesley, 1993; and Winnicott on the child (pp. 95–98). Cambridge, MA: Perseus, 2002.

This article is written by invitation. The subject of health education through broadcasting is one that has interest for me since I have from time to time given talks over the air to parents. But it should be made clear that I am not in fact especially in favour of health education in mass form. When an audience is vast it contains many people who are not listening for the purpose of learning, but who are listening by chance or for fun, or perhaps even while they are shaving or making cakes, and so have no free hand to turn the knob. In such conditions one must surely have grave doubts as to the value of putting across anything that is important.

One may compare this with school broadcasting, where children of known ages are sitting around, suitably occupied in a mild way, but definitely expecting that for a period of time they will be receiving instruction given in an interesting way from the radio. The broadcaster who wishes to talk about health has not the advantage of a special audience.

I am referring to health education in terms of psychology and not to education in matters of physical health and in the prevention and treatment of diseases. Much of what I have to say, however, could be applied to any talks on health, because it seems to me that all health education is psychological. Those who listen to a talk on rheumatism or on blood diseases do not do so because they have a scientific interest in the subject, or because of a hunger for facts; they do it because they are morbidly interested in disease. It seems to me that in educating people in matters of health this applies, whatever the medium used, except for the complication that in broadcasting one must expect that the vast majority of people who are listening in are not interested (p. 298) in being taught anything at all and are merely waiting for music to restart. Perhaps I am maligning the listener, but I am at any rate expressing a doubt that I feel every time the optimistic and reassuring voice of the health doctor gives a heartening talk on the Rhesus factor, or rheumatoid arthritis, or cancer.

I do wish to make one constructive suggestion, however, with reference to broadcasting in health matters. Any kind of propaganda, or telling people what to do, is to be deplored. It is an insult to indoctrinate people, even for their own good, unless they have the chance by being present to react, to express disapproval, and to contribute.

Is there an alternative that we may allow? What one can do as an alternative is to attempt to get hold of the ordinary things that people do, and to help them to understand why they do them. The basis for this suggestion is the idea that much that people do is really sensible in the circumstances. It is astonishing how, when one listens over and over again to the descriptions mothers give of the management of a child in the home, in the end one comes down to feeling that one cannot tell these parents what to do; one can only see that one might have done the same, or one might have done worse in the circumstances.

What people do like is to be given an understanding of the problems that they are tackling, and they like to be made aware of the things that they do intuitively. They feel unsafe when left to their hunches, to the sort of things that come to them at the critical moment, when they are not thinking things out. It may be that parents gave a child a smack or a kiss or a hug or they laughed. Something appropriate happened. This was the right thing, nothing could have been better. No-one could have told these parents what to do in the circumstances, because the circumstances could not have been described in advance. Afterwards, however, the parents find themselves talking things over and wondering, and often they have no notion what they have been doing and they feel confused about the problem itself. At such a moment they tend to feel guilty, and they fly to anyone who will speak with authority, who will give orders.

Education can catch on to all these things that people do and indeed have done, and in a good way, ever since the world started to have human beings in it who were human. If one can really show people what they are doing they become less frightened, they feel more secure about themselves, so that when they are genuinely in doubt or genuinely know that they are ignorant they seek not advice but information. The reason why they seek information is that they begin to have an idea where to go for it. They begin to see that it is possible to adopt an objective approach towards matters of the mind and of feeling and of behaviour, and they become less suspicious of science, even when it encroaches on those areas which till recently have been the exclusive property of religion.

(p. 299) I would think that there is a very great deal to be done in this matter of taking what people feel and think and do and building upon this foundation discussion or teaching which makes for a better understanding. In this way information can be passed on without there being an undermining of the self-confidence of the listener. The difficulty is for those who do the teaching in this way to know enough and to know when they themselves are ignorant.

Sometimes a broadcast talk to parents implies: ‘You ought to love your child; if you don’t love your child the child will suffer, will become a delinquent’. ‘You must breast-feed your infant; you must enjoy breast-feeding your infant; this must be the most important thing in your life’. ‘You must love your baby as soon as the baby is born; it’s unnatural not to love your own baby’ … and so on and so on. All these things are very easy to say but in fact if said they produce deplorable effects

It would be helpful to point out to mothers that sometimes mothers do not love their babies at first, or to show why mothers often find themselves unable to feed the baby at the breast, or to explain why loving is a complex matter, and not just an instinct.

I would like to add this, that it is not possible, in talking over the wireless, to deal with gross abnormalities, either in the mother or in the child, especially abnormalities in the parents. There is no point in telling people who have difficulties that they are ill. When ill people apply for help we must take the opportunity to relieve them where we can, but we easily cause distress if we make people feel ill without being available with therapy.

Almost every bit of advice that one gives over the air gives distress somewhere. Recently I spoke about telling adopted children that they are adopted. I knew of course that I was in danger of causing distress. No doubt I did upset many, but one mother who had listened came to me from a long way away and told me exactly why it would be very dangerous in the circumstances to tell her adopted child that she was adopted. I had to agree, although in principle I know that it is right to tell adopted children that they are adopted, and to do so as soon as possible.

If mothers are told to do this or that or the other, they soon get into a muddle, and (what is most important of all) they lose touch with their own ability to act without knowing exactly what is right and what is wrong. Only too easily they feel incompetent. If they must look up everything in a book or listen on the wireless, they are always too late even when they do the right things, because the right things have to be done immediately. It is only possible to act at exactly the right point when the action is intuitive or by instinct, as we say. The mind can be brought to bear on the problem afterwards, and when people think things out our job is to help them. We may discuss with them the sort of problems that they are faced with, and the sort of things they do, and the sort of effect that they may expect from their actions. This need not be the same as telling them what to do.

(p. 300) Finally: is there a place for formal instruction over the air in child psychology? It is doubtful to me whether we are ready to give instruction of this kind. Also I am reminded of the fact that in giving instruction to groups of students (social workers, for instance, or post-graduate teachers, or doctors), one knows that such instruction cannot be given loosely, but must be given within a formal setting. Perhaps over a period of time these students are having instruction; they are given opportunity for discussing among themselves what they are told, and for reading, and they have opportunity for expressing disagreement and for contributing. Even in these favourable circumstances a proportion of those who are receiving instruction will have personal difficulties to contend with, personal difficulties brought out by the new ideas and the new approach and by the revival of difficult memories and repressed fantasies. They will have had to deal with new excitements and with a rearrangement of their philosophy of life. Instruction in psychology is not like instruction in physics or even in biology.

Instruction of parents could be done, no doubt, in a carefully controlled situation, but instruction given over the wireless is not in this category. If given it must be of an extremely restricted variety, catching up on the good things that happen to normal people. Along these lines, however, a great deal can be done, and it is to be hoped that it will remain the policy of the BBC to render social service by giving time for health education that takes into account the difficulties inherent in broadcasting.