Public practice: Sharing your expertise in the media
Two media-savvy psychologists explain how you can make an impact beyond your office.
About the experts
Elaine Ducharme, PhD, is a board-certified clinical psychologist who has specialized in treatment of trauma and abuse for over 30 years. She is the author "Assessment and Treatment of Dissociative Identity Disorder" and "Must I Turn the Other Cheek", as well as chapters in several other clinical books and articles, and has been regular guest on local and national radio and television. A former registered nurse, she is a strong believer in mind-body health. She routinely works with patients on mindfulness techniques to manage stress, reduce anxiety and achieve a greater sense of contentment in their lives.
Ramani Durvasula, PhD, is a licensed clinical psychologist and professor of psychology, and is active in APA governance. She is also involved with media on multiple platforms as an author, podcast host, expert commentator on a range of digital content, and has been featured in print, television, and documentary films.
Ramani Durvasula: I think we as a discipline have a social justice obligation to share our science, to share our information about practice, to as wide an audience as possible because most people will never end up in a therapist’s office.
Hannah Calkins: As a private practitioner, you may assume that your work is meant to stay that way — private. And of course, that’s true about your work with clients. But there’s another way to have a positive impact on people’s lives and work for a healthier society — and that’s by raising your public profile, engaging with the media, and sharing your expertise on mental health with a wider audience. Not only does this benefit society, it can also benefit your business.
These days, doing this is easier than ever — but it’s still an art. In this episode of Progress Notes, I’ll speak with two clinical psychologists who are heavily involved in public education through the media. They take different approaches to their public-facing work, but they both create their own content, are regularly quoted in national news outlets, and have lots of wisdom to share about doing this work.
Ramani Durvasula: I’m Dr. Ramani Durvasula, I’m a licensed clinical psychologist. I’m in private practice here in Los Angeles. I’m also a professor of psychology at California State University-Los Angeles. I’m an author of mass-market books, I have a podcast, I do lots of commentary, I do a lot of digital media.
Hannah Calkins: Dr. Durvasula, who is known publicly as Dr. Ramani, started out in a traditional academic career before launching her private practice. She became interested in media just over ten years ago, when she saw a psychotherapist on TV offering inaccurate information about an important topic.
Ramani Durvasula: And I felt frustrated by that. I thought, who gets to do this? Who even makes this decision?
Hannah Calkins: Inspired, Dr. Ramani began researching how to get involved in media, but didn’t have much luck at first.
Ramani Durvasula: I couldn’t break into this space. Again, this was before blogging was more normative, this was before YouTube, this was before podcasts.
Hannah Calkins: By chance, she landed an opportunity to fill in on for an expert who dropped out at the last minute on TV show about group therapy. From there, she began appearing on news shows and wrote some successful mass-market books. But her career in media really took off just a couple of years ago, when a digital media site asked her to speak about reducing mental illness stigma.
Ramani Durvasula: And then it went viral. I never dreamed that anything I said would become viral, but then it did, and I saw very firsthand the power of how one piece of information could literally start whizzing across the globe and change the conversation.
Hannah Calkins: These days, Dr. Ramani produces a great deal of her own content, including videos, podcasts and blogs. She is regularly interviewed and quoted in big-name outlets, and in January, she did a TED talk on narcissism that has nearly seventy-five thousand views on YouTube. She has a well-cultivated brand, which is apparent in her thriving social media presence and website.
This is impressive, but for the typical practitioner, leveraging digital media to this extent could be too challenging or time-consuming to take on. The good news is you don’t necessarily have to.
Elaine Ducharme: I think so much of it is about connections. If you want to be out in the public you have to be making your connections.
Hannah Calkins: That’s Dr. Elaine Ducharme. She’s a licensed clinical psychologist in Connecticut who has a long history of working with the media and is active in APA’s Public Education program. Originally a nurse, she began her career as a psychologist in Florida, and while there, she made regular TV appearances on a local morning news show, and she also recorded a number of public service announcements on parenting. She looked for similar opportunities later, when she moved to Connecticut.
Elaine Ducharme: I also reached out to a local newspaper and asked if they had any interest in having a mental health column — and they did. So for a while I wrote maybe, I think it was probably monthly, a column on something to do with mental health. So that got my name out there.
Hannah Calkins: One day, she called in to a local radio station after listening to a particularly entertaining show.
Elaine Ducharme: And I said, “I was listening to your station this morning, and I’ve done a lot of media in the past, are you interested in having somebody on your show because frankly it sounds like you all need therapy!” I was obviously laughing and we were joking and he said, “That would be great, but would you come on live? Would you come to the studio?”
Hannah Calkins: That was over a decade ago. She’s been on air talking about mental health once a month ever since, and also writes a weekly blog for the same radio station.
Elaine Ducharme: I try and think about what’s relevant. So sometimes if we’re talking about Valentine’s Day, I might do something on heart health, and include in there something about heart attacks in women, heart health, and what role a psychologist could play in that. Sometimes I’ll take an entire couple of weeks and talk about different types of mental illness. So I’ll talk about anxiety, depression, bipolar disorder, schizophrenia. So it’s a great way for me to help people manage the anxiety that everybody seem to have more and more lately, whether it’s, you know, your kid is going off to college, or job insecurity, or whatever. I try and pick things that are relevant and then just put a slightly different twist so it’s not just the same old-same old.
Hannah Calkins: Both Dr. Ducharme and Dr. Ramani say that practicing psychologists are excellent and much-needed spokespeople for psychology and mental health.
Elaine Ducharme: Most of the reporters that I work with really want to know what’s happening for people themselves. The research says one thing, but what does that really translate to?
Ramani Durvasula: I think a private practitioner’s office is often a crucible for what’s happening in a society at large. It’s one thing to intellectually speak in this elevated way in about marriage as this construct; it’s quite another to spend day in and day out with arguing couples in an office. And so I think that private practitioners sometimes bring an authentic voice to — and a very accessible voice — to any kind of media commentary about psychology or mental health.
Hannah Calkins: Engaging with the public this way doesn’t just benefit society; it can be enjoyable for practitioners, too.
Elaine Ducharme: It is amazing how many people that do come into my office say, oh, I heard you on the radio, or I saw you on television. And that’s kind of nice, partly because it legitimizes what we do, and it makes me feel good, that I’m actually having some sort of impact outside of the four walls of my office.
Ramani Durvasula: What I enjoy most is how eye-opening it is for people who traditionally would never engage mental health services. I just feel as though we’re creating a community, domestically and internationally, of awareness about mental health and mental illness that’s designed to decrease stigma, that’s designed to keep the conversation going. And I think that, for me, that’s been the real power of it.
Hannah Calkins: Doing media appearances and interviews may also give you the opportunity to create and promote your own content, raising your profile even further.
Ramani Durvasula: Creating those partnerships with journalists and writers and bloggers becomes important because then they have their platforms, they have their own audiences. In some ways it’s very entrepreneurial. You’re working not only collaboratively, but you can also work independently, and then you can use those collaborative ventures to drive eyes to the other content you make.
Hannah Calkins: So, at this point, you may be thinking — sounds great, but where on earth do I start? Looking to Dr. Ramani and Dr. Ducharme as examples, you can see that they both just started out exactly where they were. They opened themselves up to opportunities, and then began actively seeking them out.
It’s simple, but not necessarily easy. They both have some advice to share based on their experiences.
First, they say that you need to determine what medium will work best for you.
Elaine Ducharme: Not everybody’s going to want to do television or radio. Many people are much more comfortable sitting at their desk and typing answers or talking on a phone. So think about what’s good for you, and the more comfortable you are the better job you’re going to do.
Hannah Calkins: And then: pitch yourself!
Elaine Ducharme: So you can reach out to an individual at a radio station, or at a newspaper. They’re always looking for information. Many times they’re very happy to call you and at least meet you.
Hannah Calkins: As you cultivate your public profile, determine the role that social media will play for you. It can be an exceptionally valuable tool if you use it well. Case in point: Dr. Ramani, who is highly active on Twitter, Instagram and YouTube — she’s even hired a team of people to maintain her digital presence.
If you don’t have the resources for that, that’s okay! Dr. Ducharme, for instance, maintains a light presence on social media, but successfully relies much more heavily on personal connections. There is also a happy medium between the two.
Ramani Durvasula: Anyone can write a blog. Anyone can record a podcast. What has happened is, this technology is very democratized at this point. It’s accessible to anyone if you just put your head down.
Hannah Calkins: Next, if you want to engage in more public-facing work with the media, it’s important to commit to it, and be flexible.
Elaine Ducharme: People tell me that they want to do this work, but then when push comes to shove, they’re not available. And do this kind of work and really be successful, the reporters, the TV hosts, the radio hosts, have to know that you’re gonna show up, and that you’ll be on time and you’ll be prepared. So, people have to be willing to work with reporters, work in the evenings, or on a weekend to make sure people are meeting their deadlines. Because for many of the reporters that’s what it’s about.
Hannah Calkins: Once your name is out there and your profile is high enough, news outlets and reporters will begin approaching you. This will ease some of the burden of pitching yourself, but it comes with a new responsibility — knowing when to say no.
Elaine Ducharme: The ones I turn down are because they’re not in my area of expertise. For example, I just had a reporter that I’ve worked with a number of times from the New England Psychologist ask me about something with school psychology and what were school psychologists seeing. And that’s just not my realm, so I referred her to a couple of people who I felt could give good answers.
Hannah Calkins: You may also decline for other reasons.
Ramani Durvasula: When I really do feel that when I’m not aligned with the mission and vision of a particular outlet I will decline. Another time I’ll decline is sometimes after the fact, I might have done it once, and I’ll look at how they might have appropriated or misappropriated my words, and I’ll make a note of that and say, yeah, I’m not going to collaborate with this person again because they didn’t share my words in an honest or accurate manner.
Hannah Calkins: Another responsibility you’ll need to think about is being ethical and maintaining appropriate boundaries. You’re a pro at this within your office, but it can be tricky when engaging with the public, especially because psychologists aren’t trained on it.
Elaine Ducharme: I have to be very careful that when radio or television hosts say, can you please bring a person that’s depressed on the air? Can you introduce us to someone with a dissociative order? My answer is always no. They’re often looking for that, so when I say people need training to do some of this, they need to know what the guidelines and ethical behaviors are surrounding doing public education.
Ramani Durvasula: Many times the people running these companies aren’t mental health people. So they may need your input as somebody who’s a psychologist to say, this is a good way to do things, this is not a good way to do things, this is a respectful way. Not all media is created alike, and so you want to be careful that your words are not exploited or turned in a way that is not helpful. I think also with social media engagement,I tell people,be careful. Like I said, I have people who do that for me, but what I don’t do is make it a place where I’m giving people therapy through Instagram, that kind of thing.
Hannah Calkins: While you may not be providing therapy, sharing your expertise with a wider audience still benefits the individuals you reach, and society at large.
Both Dr. Ramani and Dr. Ducharme demonstrate that, in many ways, public education through the media can be an extension of the work you do in your practice — and, ultimately, can become a big part of your professional identity as a psychologist.
Ramani Durvasula: I really, really hope that more and more graduate programs or at least internships and post-docs feature some form of focused training on the role of the private practitioner in the new media. I think right now a lot of people are scared of it, saying “oh no, psychologists shouldn’t be talking publicly.” I feel like that’s us shirking our responsibility to provide a public service, which is what I signed up for when I became a psychologist.
Thanks for listening to this episode of Progress Notes. It was produced by me, Hannah Calkins, with help from Chris Condayan and Jewel Edwards-Ashman. Our theme music is “Cradle Rock” by Blue Dot Sessions.