Depressed girls gone wild? - Macleans.ca

Depressed girls gone wild?

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

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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.