Like many psychologists, Dan Shapiro, PhD, honed his career goals in college and graduate school. But unlike most, Shapiro's lessons weren't learned in the classroom or laboratory—he discovered them during five years of battling Hodgkin's disease.
"I felt like I was getting a PhD in the patient experience while simultaneously getting a PhD in clinical health psychology," recalls Shapiro, whose cancer has been in remission since 1992. He says the psychological challenges of coping with a chronic illness were at times just as daunting as the side effects of chemotherapy and radiation. "I've always thought some of the anguish I'd experienced would have been easier if I'd had a coach or guide," he says.
That's one of the reasons Shapiro has gone on to become that guide for newly diagnosed cancer patients and others with chronic illnesses. Now chair of the department of humanities at Penn State College of Medicine, Shapiro is using his experience with a life-threatening illness to help physicians integrate mind-body wellness into their practices.
And in an effort that may be even more far-reaching, he is also promoting the importance of mental health as an accomplished author and media consultant for acclaimed medical television shows such as "Grey's Anatomy" and "Private Practice."
A scientist's art
For 13 years, Shapiro served as a professor of clinical psychiatry and an active clinician at the University of Arizona School of Medicine. He divided his time between instructing interns, residents and students on how to develop effective patient communication strategies and counseling patients in how best to navigate the health-care system.
While he describes this work as the main focus of his career, a love of writing and drama led Shapiro to more creative pursuits as well. He's written two books, including "Mom's Marijuana: Insights about Living" (Harmony, 2000), which takes a humorous look at the medical system from the perspective of a person undergoing cancer treatment. That novel is now a one-act play he often performs for health professionals and for patients with cancer. His personal essays on coping with cancer and the importance of emotional wellness among health-care professionals have appeared in such national publications as The New York Times and Salon.com. He's also known for his commentaries on physician-patient communication on National Public Radio's "All Things Considered."
Shapiro's audience grew even larger in 2008 when a college friend became a writer in Hollywood and mentioned Shapiro's books to some colleagues working in television. They asked Shapiro to become a mental health content consultant for the abovementioned TV shows, as well as the CBS drama "Without a Trace." The shows' writers and researchers contact him when scenes have a psychological bent, be it a character in psychotherapy or dealing with a mental health condition. The shows seek to be as evidence-based as possible, says Elizabeth Klaviter, director of medical research for "Grey's Anatomy" and "Private Practice." In a series of episodes during the fourth season of "Grey's Anatomy," for example, a character experiences a hysterical pregnancy and is eventually diagnosed with a borderline personality disorder. Shapiro explained the symptoms and progression of the disorder to help the writers build the storyline, and reviewed the script as it unfolded, Klaviter says.
"It's of particular interest to us that we have responsible portrayals of mental illness and its treatment, and in order to do that we need someone who is in the trenches and educated on these topics," Klaviter says.
Shapiro's background as an author and artist makes him especially perceptive of the show's needs, she notes. "He understands when I explain that we're trying to portray a particular emotion in a scene."
Shapiro enjoys the work and has been surprised at the amount of painstaking attention to detail behind every scene. Klaviter says it can often take Shapiro and other medical experts hours to review scripts and provide advice for less than five minutes of air time. But the time spent ensuring the mental health accuracy of these shows can provide big payoffs in terms of public awareness, Shapiro says.
"Having access to 14 million people watching one of these shows and seeing a therapist in action, using language that a real therapist would use, can have a profound impact on people's interest and willingness to pursue treatment," Shapiro says. "And that's what's most important."