There’s no question about the popularity of popular psychology advice websites, magazines, and reality shows. Although professional psychologists may cringe at Dr. Phil’s on-stage antics, he reaches a wide audience, potentially reaching 99% of the national viewing public. Our very own Psychology Today, both the website and the magazine, also reach millions of people, especially among women between the ages of 18 and 54.
Ohio State University communications researchers Eric Rasmussen (now at Texas Tech) and David Ewoldsen (2013) decided to investigate whether the advice people seek from these two media outlets, both of which provide mental health advice, mirrors the prevalence in the U.S. population of diagnosable psychological disorders. In other words, are people receiving information in the popular press and TV about the disorders that they are likely (on a statistical basis) to have?
The answer to that question is perhaps the type of answer you may expect from a psychologist—“it depends.” Rasmussen and Ewoldsen show that depression forms the preponderance of mental health topics in both of these media outlets, with both devoting about one-fifth to one-quarter of their coverage on this specific psychological disorder. Comparing this statistic to the lifetime prevalence rates in the population, which they conclude are highest for “general” disorders, they maintain that the media present a distorted view of population statistics. In reality, however, the answer is that depressive disorders are highly prevalent conditions, coming in a close second to all anxiety disorders.
Rather than distorting the mental health concerns of the public, the study actually shows that popular media seem to mirror the statistics rather well. Not everyone who reads Psych Today or watches Dr. Phil has a psychological disorder, obviously, but authors and writers seem to be tapping into valid concerns of the people who look to these media for help.
Not to be overly defensive, but I believe that some distinctions need to be made between Dr. Phil’s and Psych Today’s treatment of mental health issues. Many of the writers on this website and the magazine are licensed psychologists, practicing psychotherapists, researchers, educators, and writers or practitioners in mental-health related fields. Dr. Phil specializes in media psychology alone. On the plus side, he brings attention to important psychological concerns. If Dr. Phil didn’t provide entertainment, however, he wouldn’t be on television.
The second major point that Rasmussen and Ewoldsen make is that Dr. Phil shows mention psychotherapy as a treatment method more than do the sampled articles in Psych Today (17% of Dr. Phil compared to 10% of Psych Today). Both were most likely to recommend psychotherapy compared to medical treatment, pharmacological interventions, or just plain old advice from the source itself.
In reflecting on their findings, the study authors question whether the over-representation of supposedly under-represented conditions in addition to depression such as autism and schizophrenia reflect the influence of the pharmaceutical industry on the media. People who are just fine, they argue, may watch these shows and develop the mistaken belief that there is something wrong with them and “seek help where none is needed.” On the other hand, they see value in educating viewers who do have a diagnosable condition that the distress they experience is, indeed, a disorder and not a set of symptoms to be ignored.
Regarding the extent to which popular media recommend psychotherapy, I find that news to be actually very heartening, particularly since it is the opposite recommendation of one that the pharmaceutical companies would have you believe. If in fact “big pharma” is behind the supposed undue emphasis on depression, then you would think that these shows would also push pharma as a means of treatment.
However, Rasmussen and Ewoldsen instead note that “We would expect that psychotherapists would seek to reinforce their role in society with access to such mass outlets” (p. 619) or as the saying goes, to “support home industry.” They go on to state that “instead of receiving practical treatment advice, many members of these two sources are advised to seek professional help” (p. 619). Apart from trying in some way to pad their pockets, the authors suggest that the media are trying to protect themselves from the liability of violating the ethics of the “American Psychiatric Association” (though they cite an outdated 1987 book about the “American Psychological Association's" ethics code).
Aside from these concerns, the concept behind the work is fascinating and the effort to put pop psych writers to task is both timely and well-intentioned. I spoke to Dr. Rasmussen to get his views, and he noted that: “One of the roles of psych media is encourage people to seek personalized professional help." In other words, as I think most psychologists would assert: Looking for a one-size-fits all brand of psychotherapy isn't going to give you the help you need.
I do think that the point that the authors offered of pop psych sources promoting psychotherapy for the sake of bringing in more business needs to be addressed. Psychotherapy actually works. The American Psychological Association (APA) published a 2013 article based on the work of a top notch task force commissioned by then APA President Melba Vasquez about psychotherapy’s effectiveness (see below). The task force’s report, approved by the APA Council of Representatives, took a hard look at how well psychotherapy measures up as a tool for mental health intervention. Passing through a rigorous round of review from all of APA governance, including the Board of Scientific Affairs, the report concludes that “the research evidence shows that psychotherapy is an effective treatment, with most clients/patients who are experiencing such conditions as depression and anxiety disorders attaining or returning to a level of functioning, after a relatively short course of treatment, that is typical of well-functioning individuals in the general population” (p. 321).
When you turn to self-help sources, whether it’s on our website or other media, you may be doing so out of simple curiosity, but Rasmussen and Ewoldsen’s work suggests that you may be looking for help. It may be a first step in your own change process. It’s possible you have feelings that you don’t understand or would rather not admit to having. On Psych Today you’re likely to read articles about recent research as well as stories from practitioners. Something in one of these pieces might strike a responsive chord, giving you the inspiration to get that professional help research shows can work. The process of change often starts with this moment of recognition.
There are useful cautions, however, from the Rasmussen and Ewoldsen article. The idea that by reading about a disorder you might incorrectly conclude that you have that disorder is a common concern shared by everyone who teaches abnormal psychology. As students learn about the catalog of symptoms that accompany even the most obscure disorders, they start to check off the ones that apply to them. It’s a form of what I call “medical student-itis;” or believing that you have every disease in the book. Fortunately, however, there are ways to gain a more balanced perspective, especially if you consult reputable mental health websites.
Finally, I’d like to make the point that much of what you read about in Psych Today isn’t about disorders at all. People who turn to our website are often looking for help with their relationships. I asked members of my Facebook group, Fulfillment at Any Age, what they’re looking for in pop psych websites, and relationship advice emerged as the main theme.
In summary, there are plenty of places to look for self-help both on the internet and on television. If the message you take away from what you read is that you might consider getting professional help, there are also many places to look in order to get that help. Consult your state or national association’s website for mental health specialists in your local area. Talk to a trusted friend, counselor, or member of the clergy. There’s even been encouraging evidence about the benefits of telepsychology. Continue to read about the latest developments in mental health treatment and inform yourself about your options. You are the best judge of what will work for you, and when you find it, as APA says, you too can be a “well-functioning individual.”
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Copyright Susan Krauss Whitbourne, Ph.D. 2014
Recognition of psychotherapy effectiveness. (2013). Journal of Psychotherapy Integration, 23(3), 320-330. doi:10.1037/a0033179
Rasmussen, E., & Ewoldsen, D. R. (2013). Dr. Phil and Psychology Today as self-help treatments of mental illness: A content analysis of popular psychology programming. Journal Of Health Communication, 18(5), 610-623. doi:10.1080/10810730.2012.743630