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Why Sick Patients Are So Drawn to Cable News

Battling leukemia, my mom kept turning to CNN and Chris Cuomo. It turns out that cable news has a positive effect on some hospitalized people — even though it can make healthy folks feel like trash

TV news is more than white noise in airports, doctors’ offices and repressed suburban homes — it’s also terrible for your mental health. Experts warn that the running loop of catastrophe increases the risk of anxiety and depression, which makes us all more vulnerable to physical illnesses during a pandemic. 

So when my mom started obsessively watching CNN while hospitalized for leukemia over the summer, I wanted to protect her by immediately turning that shit off. But she insisted on watching her “boyfriend” Chris Cuomo and even started listening to his podcast so she could hear him swear in Italian. 

Moreover, while walking through the halls of the Advanced Care ward, I saw the news playing through almost every cracked door I passed by. It was so prevalent that I finally asked a nurse, “Does everyone watch the news when they’re in the hospital?” She rolled her eyes, confirming my suspicion. All of this seemed like a cruel joke. The only thing worse than fighting a deadly disease in the hospital is having to do it as MSNBC or Fox News blares in the background. 

But as much as TV news can make us feel like trash when we’re healthy, it may have the opposite effect on sick people. “Patients tend to watch the news in the hospital because it allows them to feel connected to the outside world,” explains Jami Carder, a registered nurse who has seen this trend in homecare as well as hospitals. “Plus, having it on all the time is a great distraction from things they don’t want to be thinking about.” Like, you know, a dire prognosis.

Scientists have demonstrated how practices like therapy, meditation and affirmations can positively influence our physical health. They’re often, however, impractical for someone in the hospital who has a greater statistical chance of dying than surviving. But in such cases, just thinking about the future in general — by doing something like watching the news — may be enough to improve a individual’s health, a process psychologists refer to as prospection.

More surprisingly, news binges among the very sick may not be an exclusively American phenomenon. In fact, Dublin-based physician specialist Ceppie Merry has witnessed patients turn into new junkies in hospitals across three separate continents. “I wonder if this relates to the constant interruptions that would make settling in for a great movie very difficult,” she theorizes. But she also suspects that watching the news allows patients to feel a little like themselves again, after losing so much independence to being sick. “Hospitals can give people a very real sense of depersonalization,” Merry explains, but with the news, they can get some of their old identity back. (Rooting for their favorite pet issues, their favorite teams, their favorite politicians, etc.)

This statement was most true for my mom, who since returning home has cut down on the Chris Cuomo and gone back to watching her standard shows (This Is Us and Shark Tank). Yet even as she recovers from a stem-cell transplant and has been stable for several months, I don’t know if she would’ve been as lucky without that lifeline to the outside world. When she was finally discharged, my dad even wrote Cuomo an email to thank him for getting her through so many dark turns. 

Now, I can honestly say that the news isn’t all bad.