The Squeaky Wheel

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How Self-Help Podcasts Are Helping People Therapy Cannot

Are self-help podcasts the new group therapy?

Last year I wrote an article titled Is Self-Help the New Psychotherapy? in which I cited a seminal paper by two Yale researchers who argued that face-to-face psychotherapy could never meet the mental health needs of an entire population. I went on to make the point that self-help books, articles and websites are the best candidates for filling the gap and providing easily accessible information, support and interventions for those for whom personal therapy is not an option (for geographic, financial, logistic, or other reasons).

I now believe there is an even better option—podcasts.

What is responsible for my change of heart? A show that is frequently the most popular self-help podcast on iTunes—Paul Gilmartin’s The Mental Illness Happy Hour.

Gilmartin, a stand-up comedian, launched The Mental Illness Happy Hour in 2011 after spending 16 years hosting Dinner and a Movie on TBS. Gilmartin interviews nationally known comics and other celebrities (e.g., Maria Bamford and Adam Carolla) and the rare mental health expert (I was a recent guest on the podcast myself), but the most frequent guests on the show are Paul Gilmartin’s listeners. These ‘regular folk’ share stories of sexual abuse, discrimination, terrible parenting, and other tragic life circumstances that led to their struggles with addiction, depression, anxiety, shame, self-injurious behaviors, and a host of other mental health issues.

Gilmartin’s podcast quickly touched a nerve, as within its first year it amassed over one million downloads (over 8 million by this, its fourth year).

The podcast’s name—The Mental Illness Happy Hour—is a misnomer in every possible way. The focus of the podcast is on recovery more than it is on illness, the average episode runs far longer than an hour (more like two), and despite many uplifting and humorous moments, the general tone of the podcast can hardly be described as ‘happy’. However, that is not a bad thing. The vast majority of therapy sessions could hardly be described as ‘happy’ either.

A Community of Listeners

One of the key elements to the show’s success, other than Gilmartin himself, is its community of listeners. The podcast’s website (mentalpod.com) has many surveys on topics such as ‘Shame and Secrets’, ‘I Shouldn’t Feel This Way’, and ‘Awfulsome Moments’, from which Gilmartin culls both material for discussion on the podcast and potential guests for future episodes.

Thousands of listeners regularly complete the surveys and post messages on the websites forums. Gilmartin’s listeners are also vocal on social media platforms. Take for example this recent tweet from @ctnash91: “I don't know where I'd be without The Mental Illness Happy Hour. What a compassionate, insightful podcast.” It is this kind of post and hundreds like it that indicate Gilmartin’s podcast is not merely informing and entertaining people, it is actually helping them.

What Makes The Mental Illness Happy Hour Effective as ‘Therapy’?

Gilmartin would never suggest his podcast functions as a form of ‘therapy’. “This is not a doctor’s office,” Gilmartin says in his intro, “it’s more like a waiting room that doesn’t suck”. However, I beg to disagree. The podcast does constitute a form of therapy—a virtual support group to which tens of thousands of eager subscribers look forward every week.

Indeed, whether purposefully or not, Gilmartin’s podcast is modeled after twelve step program meetings, in that the group leader (Gilmartin) is not a mental health professional but rather someone who has ‘been through it’ himself and whose function is to guide a discussion of peers. Since listeners cannot ‘share’ on the podcast in real time Gilmartin reads their surveys and emails to create a feeling of broader participation than his single guest format allows.

Also similar to twelve-step meetings is the podcast’s strictly non-judgmental, accepting, and compassionate atmosphere, one that permeates both the podcast itself and its website.

Gilmartin achieves and maintains the supportive nature of his show by leading by example. He bravely and openly exposes his personal struggles with addiction, depression, self-esteem, anxiety, rumination, and childhood trauma. By doing so, he normalizes what so many others feel but have been too fearful or ashamed to express.

By giving voice to the deep fears, shameful thoughts, and haunting memories with which so many of his listeners struggle, Gilmartin conveys and actually demonstrates that they are not alone (indeed, You are not alone, is the podcast’s tagline). By discussing the ways in which he overcame his own demons and by discussing with his guests how they overcame theirs, he informs and educates his listeners. By encouraging them to get in touch with their own pain, shame, and trauma, and to share it with the supportive community he created, he gives them a way to participate and to heal.

And heal they do.

Gilmartin’s listeners are vocal in expressing their feelings about the podcast and the gratitude they feel toward him personally. He gets dozens of emails, letters, Tweets, and Facebook messages every day, telling him, in no uncertain terms, how his podcast has impacted their lives.

As an example, a listener recently wrote to Gilmartin, telling him her personal story in beautiful and heart wrenching prose. She ended her email with this:

“Paul, you will never know what your podcast has done for me.  Your podcast is THE reason why I'm now content with myself and my place in the world.  Your podcast gave me the strength and courage to begin the process of healing.  Your podcast saved my life.  To turn your own pain and struggle into something that is now saving the lives of many is a remarkable thing. YOU'RE remarkable, Paul Gilmartin.”  

I’ve been a therapist for over twenty years and I would like to think I’ve helped hundreds of people—maybe even more than a thousand. How do I feel about a podcast that is helping ten times that many people every week?

I think it’s remarkable.

Speaking of self-help, check out my new book, Emotional First Aid: Practical Strategies for Treating Failure, Rejection, Guilt, and Other Everyday Psychological Injuries (Hudson Street Press, 2013).

Join my mailing list and receive an exclusive gift: How to Recover from Rejection

Check out my website at guywinch.com, follow me on Twitter @GuyWinch and to get first looks at new articles, Like The Squeaky Wheel Blog Facebook page.

Copyright 2014 Guy Winch

Guy Winch, Ph.D., is a licensed psychologist and author of The Squeaky Wheel: Complaining the Right Way to Get Results, Improve Your Relationships and Enhance Self-Esteem. more...

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