Trying to run a therapy session on a soundstage surrounded by production assistants, lighting technicians and camera operators — and knowing it will be watched by millions — might not appeal to many psychologists. But Ramani Durvasula, PhD, a psychology professor at California State University in Los Angeles, is hoping to change that.
Last fall, Durvasula starred in the Bravo television series “Thintervention,” where she led group therapy sessions to help the show’s six participants discover the root causes of their overeating. She has also been featured as a mental health expert on CNN and in national print publications including Marie Claire, Los Angeles Times and New York Daily News on issues around weight loss, stereotyping of those who are overweight and the mental health challenges facing the rescued Chilean miners.
Her work is driven by a desire to improve the public’s image of psychology, she says. “I saw that our field was not adequately represented anywhere on TV,” she says. “As a result, it was becoming an open field for people who didn’t have the credentials to be providing mental health commentary.”
So she hired an agent, created a website, began media interviews and eventually landed a meeting with Bravo.
Foundation in research and training
Durvasula says she appealed to “Thintervention” producers thanks to her previous work with clients around weight loss and involvement as a clinical supervisor in a clinical trial of a binge-eating treatment. She also has her own weight-loss success story: Four years ago, Durvasula lost 85 pounds and has kept it off. She has also worked in the area of HIV prevention for nearly two decades, and is very familiar with psychological models of health behavior change.
“What I’ve been teaching about and researching for years became a great foundation for doing a program like this,” she says.
Though she’s proud of the more conventional aspects of her career — including more than 40 peer-reviewed papers, a one-year stint as chair of APA’s Ad Hoc Committee on Psychology and AIDS and a $1.5 million grant from the National Institute of Mental Health to study the link between HIV and mental illness — Durvasula says her media appearances have done the most to boost public awareness of psychology.
“In the last year, I’ve probably touched more people through my [media] work than in my previous 20 years of research and clinical work,” she says.
She believes it’s also made her a better psychologist. “I have a tremendous responsibility to get my facts straight — even more so than when I’m teaching a bunch of undergraduates who are falling asleep, or writing a journal article that five people will read,” Durvasula says.
With the continuing growth of reality television, Durvasula says, “never before has human nature in its raw form been such a focus of televised media, and never before have the insights of well-trained psychologists been needed more.”
The last episode of “Thintervention” aired on Oct. 25, but Durvasula says she continues to receive comments, questions and feedback about the show through Facebook, Twitter and her website, which gets about 200 hits a week, she reports. She still gets requests from CNN and other media to comment on mental health issues and is in discussions with several production companies about hosting programming or conducting interventions around psychology-focused topics.
“It’s all very tentative at this point, however,” she says.
Psychologists holding back
Too often, Durvasula says, psychologists shy away from media work because they’re afraid their research findings or behavioral insights will be oversimplified. Yet if more psychologists don’t provide mental health commentary, people with less experience and expertise will, she says.
Media work isn’t something to jump into willy-nilly, however. It requires a firm commitment to staying on top of the latest research and a willingness to stand up for the field, Durvasula says. You also have to accept that the points you make during an interview or on-air therapy session may get cut. During filming for “Thintervention,” for example, a client rolled her eyes during a therapy session — an action Durvasula discussed with the offender and the group. Yet only the eye-rolling made it into the final episode, Durvasula says.
The discussion “didn’t make for good television,” she says. “That frustrated me because people probably thought I fell asleep at the wheel by letting something like that happen during a session.”
She’s willing to accept these small frustrations in pursuit of bigger victories, however, such as getting the word out about the dangers of abusing laxatives to lose weight — a topic discussed during another “Thintervention” episode.
Durvasula also makes sure she simplifies the research to make it more digestible for the public, she says. For example, when preparing for the “Thintervention” episode about laxative abuse, she spent several days reading literature on the topic and boiled her comments to viewers down to three main points about what causes people to abuse laxatives, how it doesn’t help with weight loss and how to overcome laxative abuse.
“A lot of psychologists, when they talk to the media, tend to get lost in the statistics and very rarely say, ‘This causes this,’ because we’ve been trained to be circumspect,” she says. “But most of the time, you don’t have much time, and you have to [give] a very clear sound bite that’s about 95 percent accurate.”
By translating research findings — be it on HIV and mental illness or the role of psychology in weight loss — into terms understandable to the general public, Durvasula is doing an important public service, says John Anderson, PhD, senior director of APA’s Office on AIDS.
“Dr. Durvasula has an uncanny ability to describe the essence of problems and solutions in ways that make sense to people,” he says. “Her work makes a difference in at-risk populations that would not otherwise be exposed to evidence-based behavioral interventions.”
Amy Novotney is a writer in Chicago.
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