Depressed girls gone wild?

Is Facebook really to blame for Nathalie Blanchard losing her disability benefits, asks Colby Cosh

I realize nobody has all that much interest in being strictly fair to insurance companies, but I’m sort of horrified by the way the Nathalie Blanchard story is being handled in the press and electronic media. The evidence for the notion that Ms. Blanchard lost her long-term disability benefits “over Facebook photos” appears to amount entirely to “She says she was told that’s what happened.” Now, she could be quite right. Manulife admits it does use Facebook to investigate disability claims, as anyone would expect them to do. Here’s a news flash for particularly naïve children and desert-dwelling stylites: an insurance company following up a suspicion of a false claim uses every kind of evidence it can scrape up. Its hirelings will quiz your neighbours, co-workers, and friends! They will rummage through your garbage! They will engage in photo and video surveillance! They’ll Google you until the cows come home!

In short, this is, like this spring’s “Craigslist killer” news story, a narrative to which the supposed cynosure of attention really has no special relevance. At all. It would be nice if news organizations could get together, run one last banner headline announcing that THE INTERNET EXISTS, and be done with these trumped-up technology angles for all time.

Anyway, since we don’t know what other evidence Manulife’s investigation turned up, and they are bound not to tell us, it seems inappropriate for the headlines and the secondary commentary on the story to take Blanchard’s version as the gospel. Which is exactly what everybody is doing, even though Manulife may have had a dozen other reasons for cancelling the claim.

I’m not suggesting, mind you, that they necessarily do. An insurer makes decisions like this with hypothetical litigation in mind. That’s not necessarily conducive to clear thinking: it’s conducive to thinking like a juror, which may well be the diametrical opposite. It would not be surprising if some excitable junior associate had been shown Blanchard’s Facebook pictures of fun in the sun and thought “Well, well, well. These will be awfully hard to for her to explain to a jury.” You would have to be an idiot to think that such pictures are, in themselves, good evidence that Blanchard is not depressed. And, unfortunately, the world is full of idiots.

The key question for an insurer, however, is not whether Blanchard has depression, but whether she is making bona fide efforts to return to her job. Her duty isn’t to stop being ill, but to do what she can to get as well as she can and start earning her paycheques again. There are plenty of seriously depressed people who still manage to drag their butts out of bed and punch the clock most days. Blanchard’s statements to the CBC leave me wondering a little about her self-understanding, and since thousands of bloggers and editors apparently have no trouble questioning Manulife’s credibility, I feel quite licensed to wonder.

She says, for instance, “that on her doctor’s advice, she tried to have fun, including nights out at her local bar with friends and short getaways to sun destinations, as a way to forget her problems.” I suppose that a physician treating depression would recommend, in a general way, that his patient should try to get exercise, seek pleasant new experiences, maintain strong social networks, etc., etc. On the other hand, I can’t see any doctor having a display of travel brochures on the wall of his office, or publishing a guide to Eastern Townships nightlife. Again, pictures of Blanchard at a bar cannot possibly demonstrate that she is not depressed. But they could show that she was defying a doctor’s advice concerning the safe use of psychiatric medication, or the consumption of alcohol itself, if she were at risk of co-morbidity from substance-abuse problems.

Blanchard also says, by the way, that she “doesn’t understand how Manulife accessed her photos because her Facebook profile is locked and only people she approves can look at what she posts.” I hope that since this interview, someone has taken her aside and gently explained the Sherlockian maxim that “when you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth.” In this case, the compelling conclusion is that somebody Blanchard trusted snitched on her to the insurer, perhaps in a spasm of dudgeon over her insurance-subsidized lifestyle. It happens. In fact, it was known to happen before there was such a thing as Facebook.

Depressed girls gone wild?

  1. "Which is exactly what everybody is doing, even though Manulife may have had a dozen other reasons for cancelling the claim. … I'm not suggesting, mind you, that they necessarily do."

    In the CBC story you linked to, Manulife directly said they would never disallow a claim on the basis of such photos or on-line information alone. Which sounds more plausible than Blanchard's version of things.

    • Probably whoever provided access to Facebook provided context.

      • It may have been as simple as a clause prohibiting things like travel (unless prescribed by a doctor) while collecting disability benefits.

        But I'm starting to feel like an armchair jurist, so I'll stop guessing (I think CBC has exclusive rights that sort of on-line commenting.)

    • No, you missed some important weasel wording there. Manulife told CBC they would never disallow a VALID claim on that basis. Since Manulife would presumably never disallow a claim they regarded as valid under any circumstances, this is pretty much just parrot noise.

      • That makes sense. I read it more kindly (i.e., the measure of validity would never rest on Facebook info alone), but I'd probably make a lousy lawyer.

      • "the insurer said: "We would not deny or terminate a valid claim solely based on information published on websites such as Facebook."

        I have lawyers in my family and so am well aware of their weasel word tricks but SeanS might be correct. Blanchard's claim was deemed valid at first because she was receiving payments. Those payments have now been terminated so presumably Manulife have other info or they are lying. If we are going to speculate, maybe the snitch who gave Manulife access to Blanchard's Facebook page also told them other things.

  2. [Facebook pictures] showing her having a good time at a Chippendales bar show

    It has the feel of a Mr. Big sting.

  3. The fact is, it will take a generation before the 'norm' you propose could be accepted. In my social circle likely 10% of the people I know use Facebook. Social networking is good at promoting itself, but it's not as pervasive as you are making out here. For the younger generation — yes. Yet try to remember the average age of Canadians is 40. So…it still does shock to think that a stranger (such as an insurance company) is looking at your pictures. Now that's reality buddy.

    • Here's a rule of thumb: if you don't want strangers looking at your photos, don't post them on the internet.

      • There's something of a tension in our culture right now between a desire for privacy and narcissism (I mean the latter in a non-perjorative sense). We don't want our personal lives to be accessible to just anybody, yet we're increasingly trying to create public identities and relationships (which isn't surprising, given the often 'empty' nature of an atomized, anonymous society).

        But as much we're trying to create communities on our own terms (Facebook networks, etc.), we need to remember that small-scale community life generally minimizes the importance of the individual. Put another way, part of participation in any meaningful social network usually involves a diminishment of privacy. We can't hold both ends of the stick at the same time.

        • Humans are full of paradoxes. I agree that we seek 'meaningful social network' but I don't believe online websites actually provide them. Internet is powerful – for instance, there a bunch of people here who have been commenting regularly for long time and we get sense that we know each other but, in reality, we don't know a damn thing about one another.

          If people are actually looking for meaningful social networks, and not the illusion of one, then they should get out and volunteer or join a health club … etc.

          • I just want the illusion, thanks!

          • In the absence of input for the other senses (smell, touch, hearing, sight), our brains attempt to fill in the gaps with what we want to believe. Ask anyone who has seriously explored online relationships. It can work, but the potholes are enormous

      • The point is that Nathalie Blanchard thought she knew who could view her pictures and Great West Life was not on her list! My point (however poorly expressed) is that the 'Facebook Privacy Meme' is totally appropriate spin for the story. Colby Cosh has used a sex porn meme (Girls gone Wild) to spin his own story here, so if he's gonna call kettle black I need more substance from him. For instance, it strikes me that Facebook activity itself could be argued to be symptomatic of depression. Did Ms. Blanchard's think of that? The Facebook Privacy Meme is valid in this case for another reason. Do we percieve the posting of a picture of enjoyment as enjoyment itself? A picture. A thousand words and a thousand more pictures. That's a Facebook profile. Should the secured database it represent be used as evidence in court? Do we collectively know enough about what 'it is' to do that?

        • For what it's worth, Blanchard is free to take Manulife to court (that she's retained a lawyer indicates she might). I'm not about to carry a banner for large corporations at all times, but there's no way insurance companies go around yanking disability benefits without being very cautious (look at the negative press for this one case alone). Also, the underwriting and claims staff have extensive medical training (and there's doctors on staff), so it's highly unlikely that the decision was a matter of subjective, uninformed whim. The problem is, they cannot release private details about this woman's file and whatever evidence they relied upon (ironic, no?), so we're left with her version of the story (and I'm guessing her lawyer wasn't about to divulge details that cast a negative light on her case).

  4. "My client was diagnosed with a major depression. And there were pictures of her on Facebook, in a party or having a good time."

    Hahaha. Is her lawyer trying to help her or not? I know people who have actually been clinically depressed and they couldn't get out of bed in the mornings. If you capable of going on hols, or out to nightclub, than you are ok to work as well.

    • Unless you work for the public service, in which case the whole point of getting a doctor's note for depression is to take holidays.
      Uh oh, here comes the yelling.

    • Tremendously ignorant reply, you clearly have no idea what clinical depression actually involves.

    • You really and truly are off base here.

      If you break your leg, you can still go out for a few hours, hobble around (especially with a few drinks) and be social. You can't work in any manual occupation, and likely will have a hard time doing symbolic work thanks to the way pain interferes with concentration. By your logic, the busted leg would be fraud.

      Psychiatric issues mask themselves very easily – all of the suicides that no one saw coming, getting through the holidays with the kids despite massive problems in a relationship… Being depressed doesn't mean never having a smile on your face, just as being anorexic doesn't require food never passing your lips. You'd probably be trying to convict me of not loving or missing my grandparents because I sometimes had moments of levity during their wakes and the days surrounding their funerals/memorial services.

      • I am not making any judgement on whether she is depressed or not. Just seems to me if she is capable of jetting off to caribbean for holidays, or going to strip shows with her girlfriends, than she can show up to work.

        • Part of the thing here is that depression and work ethic are not necessarily correlated. Yes, it's true that for some people, clinical depression might make it impossible for them to work. But on the other hand, I know people who suffer from serious depression who have very strong work ethics and still show up for work every day and are productive. And of course we all know people who have no significant mental health issues whatsoever but who are lazy and shiftless and look for any excuse (e.g., "sick days") not to work.

    • "University of Wisconsin-La Crosse student Adam Bauer has nearly 400 friends on Facebook. He got an offer for a new one about a month ago. “She was a good-looking girl. I usually don't accept friends I don't know, but I randomly accepted this one for some reason,” the 19-year-old said."

      That made me laugh. I love the 'for some reason' part at the end.

      Get used to it Bauer, you will find yourself doing random things for pretty girls the rest of your life.

      • The other thing is that the charges are crap – the police have no proof of what was being consumed. Unless they size cups with good chains of evidence, they can't demonstrate that there was alcohol in them. It looks like there was alcohol consumed, but these charges can be tossed with a tiny, tiny bit of effort. The cops are pretty idiotic for even trying this, since the kids probably can make decent money from a lawsuit for malicious prosecution and civil rights violations.

  5. OK for an insurance company to even start to investigate a possibly false claim is a BIG deal!! Insurance companies will often make payouts for some time, and work with indiviuals to get them back to work as in the end it's more cost effective than investigating everyone. Investigating is very expensive, and often doesn't produce results. Insurance companes don't even startinvestigating unlesss they have a big reason to doubt the validity of a claim. Blanchard obviously was trying to get a paycheck for free, and on you and my backs. Now she makes headlines and we sob for her screw that get out and get a job!

  6. It seems to me that if someone can go to the beach or hang out at a bar, then that person is capable of working, regardless of whether the person is depressed.

    Frankly, there was once a time when it was honorable to do your job when things weren't quite right in your life. In sports it was heroic to play injured. Now in the age of insurance and social welfare, being the tough guy is for chumps.

  7. "In this case, the compelling conclusion is that somebody Blanchard trusted snitched on her to the insurer, perhaps in a spasm of dudgeon over her insurance-subsidized lifestyle. "

    Other explanation: Facebook recently changed the way its privacy settings are handled. The settings for news and public feeds, and the settings for disallowing photos for Facebook ads, are on separate pages, meaning one but not the other was turned off. So it wouldn't necessarily have been a friend, but an insurance person finding her picture in a Facebook ad and making a conclusion.

    • Or a friend with pics had an open profile.

  8. Bars are full of depressed people.

    • Well, alcohol is technically a depressant . . . way better to go to a coke or rave party I guess . . .

  9. Thank you Phantom. I just want to reemphasize that point, that access to photo galleries is different from regular access. Some women i work with were discussing the tricky privacy option of photo galleries on FB just last week. Apparently it is possible for a profile to be private but for you to have your photo galleries open if someone can link to them through a friend of a friend or some such. Or, as CC suggests, she was ratted out.

  10. Dear depressed people, take note: If you can have a good time, ever, you are not depressed. Stay in bed please.

  11. if you use facebook,you life becomes public….anyone can hack FB securiety settings

  12. I guess a better way to put it is that depression and work ethic are far from perfectly correlated.

  13. I went through a crisis of sorts in the spring, and run my own business. I had no choice but to carry on. I understand depression and the toll it takes across your entire life, but I have little sympathy. I worked when I had to, and wallowed in my spare time. If I had reached the point where I could not work at all, I was prepared to check myself into the hospital for treatment beyond what my doctor prescribed. That is the only "holiday" I had the option to take. It is a serious illness and deserves to be treated seriously. If she is able to get out and try to have fun, and go on holiday, then I would hope she is also able to try to nurture her productive side and can see the value that would give to her sense of self worth. If it was the specific job that caused her depression, there are others, and programs offered to help people with the readjustment. I wish her the best…perhaps this is the best thing that could happen, to help her get back on her feet and out into the world again.

  14. wcb…does investigate malingering amongst its clients….so if you have a bad back dont start doing yard work or walking long walks ..if you can do that you can work….I totally agree….long term disability…requires you to retrain if possible….so if you are depressed get on your meds…and get back to work

  15. Is she on some kind of medication? I think she needs it.

  16. Well written article! I think a large corporation would have more things to consider then simply a few pieces of "evidence" on facebook.

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