Shrinks and couch potatoes

September 03, 1994|By Beth Sherman | Beth Sherman,Newsday

The dark-haired, soft-spoken woman on television is obviously upset. She can't eat, can't sleep. All she can do is obsess about her old boyfriend, who made her life miserable for 2 1/2 years and now is dating someone else.

Under her face are the words: "Diane: Can't Move On From Her Ex."

"It's so painful. I feel so incredibly betrayed," she tells psychologist Bernie Katz and behavioral therapist Cynthia Richmond, the hosts of "Am I Nuts?" an interactive advice-oriented program that recently debuted on the America's Talking cable network.

Yet, minutes later, after "Mary From New York" has called in to sympathize, after Ms. Richmond has told her to decide what she really wants and Mr. Katz has predicted that the ex-boyfriend will be the same jerk with this new woman as he was with her, Diane appears to cheer up.

Welcome to the world of broadcast shrinks, where psychologists, counselors and other experts dispense advice on everything from what it means when you have dreams about death to what to do when you're attracted to a nut case. Each weekday, thousands of people call, fax or use computer networks to broadcast their troubles on radio and TV. CNBC features "Real Personal," a live call-in talk show about sex. On "Breakfast Time," the new morning show on Fox Inc.'s fX network, a psychotherapist offers advice on relationships and assorted conflicts. And Lifetime has "The Marriage Counselor," where actors play family members in crisis. The show is scripted by a team of psychologists who use fictionalized examples of real-life sessions.

The advice market is so big that a new network, called The Recovery Network, is being launched this fall to address people who are recovering from sexual abuse, drug addiction, eating disorders, alcoholism, compulsive gambling and the like.

"We're trying to help anyone who is trying to make positive healthy lifestyle choices," says Jonathan Catch, the network's president. "In a 500-channel world, this is the perfect niche audience."

The psychological community is largely supportive of advice-oriented shows and columns, such as Dear Abby, with a few important caveats. "All of us in the field are committed to demystifying psychology, but it has to be done extremely carefully," says Lilli Friedland, president-elect of the media division of the American Psychological Association. "These programs give people basic advice and general guidelines about how to handle their problems. But it's not so simple. The goal of therapy is to incorporate that knowledge into your life, so that you can make specific changes. It's a process that takes a lot of time."

L Indeed, psychologists stress that the shows are not therapy.

"Absolutely not, because there's no real relationship between the client and the professional," says Robert McCall, a Pittsburgh-based psychologist who helped devise a set of

ethical recommendations for colleagues who appear on radio and television. "Studies show that the average length of these calls is about four minutes. There's no way (therapists) can get enough information in that time to make an accurate diagnosis and really assess the problem."

Another concern, says Mr. McCall, is that viewers and listeners at home will overly identify with the person whose problems are being discussed. "People may feel they share the problems of the caller," he says. "But their circumstances may be quite different, and the advice may not apply at all."

However, say psychologists who work the phones on call-in shows, the point is not to provide mini-therapy.

"We know we're not going to solve everyone's problems, but what we can do is help people think of an option or alternative they might not have considered," says Mr. Katz, a practicing psychologist for 28 years who lives and works on Long Island.

The shows' executives maintain they are a breed apart from popular dysfunction-of-the-day talk formats, because their programs don't sensationalize people's pain.

"We don't go for the jugular," says John Verhoff, the producer of "Am I Nuts?" "There's no studio audience. We're not here to bash people and make them feel foolish."

The interactive programs screen callers carefully. Weeded out are people who clearly have serious problems -- anorexia, suicidal feelings, alcoholism. They are referred to national health organizations that specialize in these conditions. The programs also sometimes refer people to psychologists and counselors near their homes for treatment, if the host or the producer feels therapy is warranted.

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