Friday, January 14, 2011

My Take on Mental Illness-Focused Reality Television

First, the results of the poll from last Friday. There was a small sample size, but I was struck by the variability. About a third of you reported that you hadn't seen these shows. About a quarter of you said you either really liked them or were riveted by the train wreck. And about 40% of you said you were either uncomfortable with these shows or found them truly distasteful.

Today I talk about where I stand.

Now, here's a confession that will probably invalidate most of what I have to say: I don't watch television. I haven't since I started writing.

However, I don't live under a rock (most of the time), and a few years ago, I heard about this show on A&E called Intervention. I even saw a preview.

It made me feel sick.

And then I heard about others: Obsessed. Hoarders. The OCD Project. My Strange Addiction.

I was stunned. I just couldn't believe people's pain, their worst moments, were being captured for the camera like that. There were commercial breaks sandwiched between tearful confessions of childhood molestation. WTF?

See, people don't come to see someone like me because it's fun or self-indulgent; they come because they feel bad ... and they'd like to feel better. I am forever in awe of the bravery of my clients. Imagine telling a stranger that you don't really like your kid.Imagine telling her you think you've already ruined your child's life because you can't pull it together. And then imagine trying to change, all because you love your kids and want to do right by them, and so you're willing to go through this difficult, sometimes painful, and always INTENSELY PERSONAL process.

Now imagine doing that in front of these guys.

After being trained FOR YEARS about how essential client confidentiality is (with some exceptions, like imminent risk of harm to self or others), it's hard for me to understand how actual, licensed professionals are willing to take part in these shows.

Yes, I know the participants gave their "informed consent." I know there are probably some safeguards in place. But I worry these shows entice vulnerable people to participate and splice together dramatic bits of their lives so that others can satisfy (completely natural, human) curiosity and feel better about how their own lives aren't quite so bad.

I also worry about what these people's lives are like in the aftermath of being on one of these shows--did that unemployed guy on The OCD Project get many job interviews after admitting his worst fear was that he'd lose control and strangle someone to death? No matter what "progress" was made in front of the camera, I wonder about the net effect of being on one of these shows. I worry that sometimes, if not most of the time, it harms these people, that it makes their lives worse. Maybe not in the immediate feel-good afterglow of the closing credits, but in the weeks and months and years after their fifteen minutes of fame have passed.

The funny thing is, for the most part, the treatments that are being used on these shows (from the few I've seen) are actually evidence-based. That means there's research to support their effectiveness for use with the particular problem. In The OCD Project, that psychologist uses exposure with response prevention as the core of the treatment, and that's exactly what's appropriate. I wish all people seeking treatment for OCD could get access to these experts.

But I wish they didn't have to sacrifice their privacy and dignity to do it.


  1. I quit watching television in March 2005. It is when I started writing more, and writing was a more valuable use of my time for me. I don't have cable or satellite, and my kids adjusted. They watch movies or Youtube. I never know what's going on in the celebrity world, and I don't care. These are people I don't know, so I don't get personally invested in their lives. There is the odd show out there I buy on DVD which is different from the rest and entertains me when I'm not writing, but these are few.

    I've never watched a reality television show on purpose. I've been at a friend's house and they've had one of them on at times, but I don't get it. It's like professional sports to me. I don't root for a team because I don't know those people. Why should it matter to me how things turn out? You could say the same about books, I guess, but to me a story is different than watching real people make asses of themselves on television.

    I do care about people. I weep when I see on news websites the despair in Queensland or the Tucson incident. I care about the horrors we endure as a species. I don't care for people who go on shows and make a carnival of their lives for entertainment.

    I know people with mental illness, and any of them ever said they were going on one of these shows, I'd want them to explain to me why. Is sharing their pain with millions of strangers a step in the healing process? Maybe it helps people with problems feel better about their own lives when they watch others in despair, but I think that taps into a darker side of our psyche we should avoid. But that's just me.

  2. You've made some excellent points here. Now I feel bad for watching Hoarders.


  3. hi miss sarah! my most old brother works like you with people that got mental illness. he says maybe those people do it cause they get paid and could need lots of attention but he doesnt much like it. he said when the cameras get and lights and all that excitement of being on tv gets done what happens to those people. whos gonna be there for them. i think hes right. i couldnt ever wanna talk about all my stuff on tv. but mostly im ok sharing some stuff with my blogger friends. now im wondering why tv feels bad but im ok with sharing with my blogger friends. wow! for sure you got me thinking on this post.
    ...hugs from lenny

  4. Nothing seems sacred anymore. I hardly watch TV, and when I do it's usually old movies. TLC has gone off the deep end!

  5. Aw, JD, a lot of people like these shows. It's natural to 1) be curious, and 2) want to make what's called "downward comparisons", those thoughts like "at least my life isn't that bad". That's what creates the audience for these shows.

    Lenny--great point. In the blogging world, you can still stay relatively unknown and anonymous (to some extent). On national tv, everyone can see your face. I think that makes a huge difference.

    Lydia and Christi--that's sort of where I am. I just don't have the time to watch. But these shows are quite popular, and because they involved psychologists, I wanted to address it!

  6. Good point! I suppose there's an aspect of sensationalism that's hard to resist...I, too, wonder how providers/clinicians can reconcile confidentiality vs. publicizing someone's illness on TV. It's not only TLC, but Dr. Phil, Dr. Laura, etc, etc, etc...and dare I mention talk shows? LOL!

  7. Some aspects of TLC really, really scare me. Toddlers and Tiaras, for one, is terrifying. I don't watch a ton of TV but I live with my parents and younger siblings, so TV is a given. My mom is a recovering alcoholic and aspiring therapist, and she loves shows like Intervention. It's part of what made her want to pursue that career and it's a great practice in empathy for her.

    Although some of the ethics stuff does bother me, I really can't regret watching these shows for the intense writing inspiration they give me from time to time. I mean, heck, one of my novels wouldn't exist if it weren't for 19 Kids and Counting.

  8. Downward comparisons? Phew! Maybe I'm not that weird after all. I don't watch much TV either, but I do make comparisons in other areas of life. Great post.

  9. OMW! I've never heard about these shows. I'm shocked, and a little sickened by this. This reeks a little of taking advantage of people in need. I can't imagine watching something like that.