Wednesday, November 01, 2006

I'll post again soon...if they don't commit me before I leave.

Regulars will have noticed the conspicuous absence of fresh material on SHAMblog this week. That's because I had some prior commitments to take care of, plus I've had to prep for—no laughing allowed, now, among people who know me personally—my role as the keynote speaker at a mental-health convention late this week. The itinerary I was given says that I am responsible for two full hours (!!) of scintillating speechery, plus a panel discussion/Q&A afterwards. So, aside from feverishly compiling material from any and every available source, I've been thinking a lot about how to frame all this—the "this" being my book, and the subject of self-help as a whole, and the particular relevance of the foregoing to the practice of latter-day psychotherapy. And I've decided that the relevance is as follows: The gurus we talk about in this blog are, in effect if not actually, practicing psychiatry without a license. They're playing in the shrink's ballpark, and they're doing it without paying the price of admission, in terms of having the certification or other background credentials that you'd expect in someone who's going to be toiling deep inside your head.

That's not hyperbole. F'rinstance, increasing numbers of life coaches who work with high-powered clients one-on-one administer batteries of such standard psychological/diagnostic tests as the MMPI and Myers-Briggs. (Heck, even if they don't really have the first clue as to what to make of the results, it just "looks good.") If they have an actual office, they may even keep the DSM handy on their desks, just as a useful prop. Coaches particularly, but all of the gurus as a class, will guide people in making major life-changing decisions, often on the basis of just a cursory knowledge of a given individual and his/her "issues." As I note in SHAM, Dr. Laura Schlessinger, especially during her halcyon days of the late-90s, would tell callers to walk out on their husbands, stop talking to their siblings, or turn their kids in to the police...this, after maybe 90 seconds of hyperventilated conversation in which she was constantly interrupting them and imposing her own context on their complaints to begin with. Dr. Phil, in contrast to most of his peers in self-help, has a legitimate license to practice psychotherapy, but there remain major questions to be raised about the way he runs his shop: once again, his tendency to leap to easy (and theatrically compelling) conclusions; to use troubled people as pawns in a war for TV ratings points; to attempt to fashion a one-size-fits-all approach to the governance of his viewers' and readers' disparate lives. In McGraw's defense, at least his recommendations are based on something he might have learned while studying for his degree. How many millions of other distressed Americans end up entrusting themselves to therapeutic "regimens" that involve angels or chakras, or have to do with strange-sounding Hawaiian words and phrases?

Anyway, that's some of what I intend to talk about. All suggestions are welcome. Two hours is, after all, two hours....


Cosmic Connie said...

Someone (I wish I knew who) once said, "A mystic is someone who wants to understand the universe but is too lazy to study physics." That would pretty much describe most of the folks who have enthusiastically embraced “underground hit” movies such as "What The Bleep" and "The Secret." And with a bit of alteration the same maxim could apply to many of the SHAMsters you have written about in this blog: "A life coach is someone who wants to understand the workings of the human brain but is too lazy to study medicine, biology, etc."

Not that psychiatry is blameless. A former client, a psychiatrist, once told the Rev and me that he hated the direction modern psychiatry had taken. (I think I've bitched about this before on your blog, but bear with me.) Our client's complaint was this: With the restructuring of the health care system in the US (managed care, etc.), psychiatry has become less about taking the time to explore emotions and more about prescribing meds and sending the troubled patient on his or her merry way. In many cases, of course, meds are necessary, but they can’t fix everything and shouldn’t be expected to. It is left to the Ph.D.-type therapists, counselors, etc. to fill in the gap, and these folks do sometimes serve a useful purpose. The problem, as you noted, is that when they become “stars” they’re playing to an audience, and they often reach simplistic conclusions -- the kind of conclusions that make for good TV and bestselling books.

Did anyone see last night’s episode of “Help Me Help You,” the Ted Danson sitcom? Danson’s character became sexually involved with a “life coach” who embodied all the absurdity of that “profession.”

Anyway, good luck at the mental health conference, Steve. Hope it doesn’t make you crazy (or crazier). :-)

a/good/lysstener said...

You will be missed, Steve. Good luck in your presentation. Break a leg! Better yet, break someone else's!

matt dick said...

You could try starting the talk with an interactive (and time consuming!) exercise. Start talking, look confused or start having trouble finding the words you want to say. Then have the audience stand up and help you arrange tables, chairs, potted trees, etc. that are scattered around the hall. After they're done, point out how much better the feng shui is and then proceed. Just the physical act of performing furniture arranging to improve speaking might help point out the absurdity.

And now you have only 1 hour 53 minutes left.

Steve Salerno said...

Good point, Matt! I may actually try that. Can't be any worse than what I came up with on my own. What worries me, though, is that I'll talk for a few minutes and THEY might start rearranging the furniture on their own, just to have something to do. (And if that's in no way as funny as it seemed to me, well, it's testament to my state of mind after two entire days of trying to compose a riveting, two-hour, SHAM-themed speech. I'm to that point where the individual words don't even make sense anymore...)

RevRon's Rants said...

Keep in mind, Steve, that the father of Psychiatry (Freud, of course) rendered one of his most famous diagnoses (Miss Lucy) based upon anecdotal information gleaned from her parents. He never even met her.

Having trained & worked as a psych. tech in the Navy, I grew pretty disgusted with the classical approach to "therapy," which was, in its essence, creating in the patients an addiction to their relationship with the therapist (as well as their medications). When Eric Berne published his theory of Transactional Analysis, he was - and still is - broadly condemned by the medical community, because his approach was based in the notion that the patient is the only one truly qualified or capable of healing him/herself. The Freudians saw their sacred territory being threatened, and fought back hard. Kind of sounds like some of the "self-help" gurus you lampoon, who eschew any form of self-help that doesn't line their pockets and inflate their egos.

But enough of my rant... Go in there and pump some sunshine up their butts, and they'll hail you as brilliant. Challenge their cleverness, but not their paradigm.

Good luck!

Matt Dick said...

I can't even do something I *like* for two hours without needing to get up and walk around.

You could find your horoscope from three different newspapers from the morning of your speech and read them -- wowing the audience with how they can all be general and vaguely contradictory.

Bang! 1 hour, 51 minutes to go. I tell you, I'm a gold mine for this time-wasting stuff. The beauty of this one is you don't even need to author those two minutes of prose -- some intern at the New York Times did all the dirty work!

Remember, think positive (no adverbs for Self-help gurus) and you'll get through it -- *everyone* can be the best orator in the world.

Two Write Hands said...

Dave Barry has some good advice here.

Trish Ryan said...

Here's a sample agenda, custom made for you:

Make a joke: 1 minute.

Introduce yourself, SHAM, and tell a brief anecdote about how your Grandmother influenced you in some vital, Oprah-worthy way (this will make them like you): 5 minutes.

Then hand out paper and fancy pens, and have everyone write or draw their FEELINGS about mental health. When everyone is done, have them share their FEELINGS with the person to their left and to their right: 1 hour, 53 minutes.

One more story about Grandma, and you're done.

Steve Salerno said...

Hey Trish! How did you get a hold of a copy of my speech plan!?

Steve Salerno said...

And, to Two Write Hands: Darn. I'd reserved 18 minutes for scratching myself alone!