Podcasting as Therapy 02

I’m sharing some notes on my thoughts about how some forms of podcasting have an experiential element to them that is akin to therapy. I’ve never undertaken any therapy, neither as a person needing guidance or as a therapist. I’ve done lots of mentoring in my previous work teaching. Indeed, my preferred mode of engagement with learners is to mentor rather than instruct, but I’ve few reference-points outside of this process that can attest to its success or not.

As it is World Mental Health Day today, I want to focus this post on some of the connections that I think that a conversational podcast has with therapy. It would be interesting to hear from anyone who actually has delivered or has undertaken therapy to find out more about the process and what it feels like to be involved – obviously with complete respect for privacy.

One sub-genre of podcasting that has emerged over the last twenty years is the ‘eavesdropping’ recording, in which a feed from a discussion, symposium or meeting is recorded and shared. The recording of lectures and presentations has existed for many years before the advent of podcasting, but with the combination of relatively small files, and RSS distribution, these records can now be taken from their archives and shared via keyword searches on podcasting platforms.

The Guardian lists a set of podcasts in which it suggests that it is possible to ‘nose into other people’s problems.’ The Where Should We Begin podcast is described as an unscripted therapy sessions condensed into forty-five minutes, in which the listener is taken into the ‘antechamber of intimate moments,’ in order to ‘learn, explore, and experience alongside the couples who have been gracious enough to let us in.’

Some Noise is a podcast that seeks to identify and understand the problems associated with the existential identity crisis at the heart of American culture. Hoping to go beyond the ‘click-bait’ headlines of social media, and instead to use the podcast format as a way of exploring more complex and nuanced issues that we’ve ‘lost the vocabulary or understanding to describe.’

Some Noise Podcast

Common Ground was a series of conversations recorded and shared by the Australian edition of The Guardian, in an attempt to ‘sidestep politicians and commentators and go straight to the people.’ Tackling complex social issues, this podcast sought to ‘chat about what matters’ to the people involved, and to ‘find out how people’s lives affect who they vote for.’

Obviously, these examples are presented as interesting by The Guardian, because they fit with the belief that, as Guardian readers, we are interested in getting behind the headlines and going into some topics in more detail. They are offered, therefore, not simply as a eavesdropping for its own sake, but instead as a chance to be surprised about what we might learn from the different views and ideas that are developed in these conversations.

Common Ground Podcasts

Because we live in a world in which thinking and exploring ideas seems unfashionable, and fixed or pre-baked political ideas and stances are regarded as the norm, then being able to follow discussions and debates seems to be unusual. This is something worth exploring in a later blog – the resilience and stubbornness of the mass-media, transactional models of communication.

From my Google search, which is obviously a very lazy way to come up with a sample, there seems to be two approaches to online podcasts associated with therapy. Firstly, there are those that want to promote a therapy-based business, and secondly, there are those that want to share advice about therapy processes and sessions themselves.

The first form of podcast appeal is standard across the web when it comes to promoting marketing and distribution of content. Improved use of social media, search engine optimisation, greater understanding of data analytics and metrics, and the sense that this improves monetisation of the service offered online. We are probably familiar with this line of promotion and we get bombarded by spam offering to improve our web presence on a daily basis.

This is the main thrust of Benefits of Podcasting for Therapists, which advocates how podcasting can be used by therapists to build their practices. Obviously, I don’t have a problem with anyone wishing to create a sustainable business, and that legitimate forms of therapy can benefit from enhanced and social forms of communication in this way. What concerns me, however, is that placing ranking and focussing on the statistical distribution of a podcast might pull the therapeutic model into areas that are unethical and unsavoury.

Therapy podcasting as clickbait might drive hits and page impressions, but it is counter to the urge to heal and resolve people’s problems. Do therapists sign-up to a code of ethics when they start their practice? Usually, yes. Do therapists sign-up for a code of ethics when they start sharing podcasts, I’m not yet aware of any? If there are any examples of ethical codes for therapists who use podcasting, then it would be fascinating to examine them in more detail.

The next most usual form of therapy-based podcasting is related to expectation management. Podcasting is often presented as an easy thing to do. And it can be. But there are also significant issues that need to be resolved in order to make podcasts work effectively. An article on the TheraNest blog, which offers advice about starting therapeutic practices, suggests that it’s a relatively simple process of shifting from being a ‘professional listener to podcast speaker.’

Quickly reading through the article, however, and we are back to web-marketing, extending reach, defining additional revenue streams, and so on. Very little is identified in terms of the effectiveness of therapeutic practice using podcasting, or the ethics of promoting different therapeutic views and schools of thought. In a world full of cranks and snake oil sellers, the skills that a person searching for therapeutic advice will need to determine if this is genuine and helpful, or merely hog wash, are a genuine concern?

TheraNest does offer a useful summary of therapy-based podcasts. They have compiled a list of podcasts for ‘therapists, practice owners, and anyone who loves to learn. The topics range from insightful research in the field of psychology to the study of happiness to practical tips on how to better manage your practice.’

Perhaps more focussed on the role of podcasts as a potential therapeutic tool, is Guy Winch’s blog for Psychology Today, in which he asks How Self-Help Podcasts Are Helping People Therapy Cannot. Guy relates his assessment of the increased use of podcasting with his experience as a therapist, and points to some sticky problems that create a conflict for ethical therapeutic practice, such as misnamed podcasts that purport to be about one thing, but are actually about something else in practice.

What Guy does identify that is clearly distinct from other forms of advice about podcasting by therapists is the need to recognise that what is really being formed in developing and sharing podcasts are ‘communities of listeners.’ Citing the Mental Illness Happy Hour podcast, produced by stand-up comedian Paul Gilmartin, Guy points out that while “Gilmartin would never suggest his podcast functions as a form of ‘therapy’. ‘This is not a doctor’s office,’ Gilmartin says in his intro, ‘it’s more like a waiting room that doesn’t suck’.”

Guy disagrees, however, and argues that this podcast does indeed “constitute a form of therapy,” but not a formal therapy session, it’s more of a “virtual support group to which tens of thousands of eager subscribers look forward every week.”

Guy points out that Gilmartin

‘Achieves and maintains the supportive nature of his show by leading by example. He bravely and openly exposes his personal struggles with addiction, depression, self-esteem, anxiety, rumination, and childhood trauma. By doing so, he normalizes what so many others feel but have been too fearful or ashamed to express.’

And that by,

‘By giving voice to the deep fears, shameful thoughts, and haunting memories with which so many of his listeners struggle, Gilmartin conveys and actually demonstrates that they are not alone (indeed, You are not alone, is the podcast’s tagline). By discussing the ways in which he overcame his own demons and by discussing with his guests how they overcame theirs, he informs and educates his listeners. By encouraging them to get in touch with their own pain, shame, and trauma, and to share it with the supportive community he created, he gives them a way to participate and to heal.’

Indeed, Gilmartin regularly receives emails from listeners that relate the personal stories of healing that they have benefited from as a result of engaging with the Mental Illness Happy Hour podcast. One email is related by Guy Winch:

‘Paul, you will never know what your podcast has done for me. Your podcast is THE reason why I’m now content with myself and my place in the world.  Your podcast gave me the strength and courage to begin the process of healing.  Your podcast saved my life.  To turn your own pain and struggle into something that is now saving the lives of many is a remarkable thing. YOU’RE remarkable, Paul Gilmartin.’

Perhaps what this indicates is that there are different levels on which podcasts can function as a therapeutic tool. On one level those engaged with and participating in the podcast are likely to come closest to the therapeutic process, as they are able to interact and discuss relevant issues and ideas. For listeners to a podcast this direct experience isn’t on offer, but the opportunity to learn from other people who have explored similar experiences might be helpful in a secondary sense.

The next level of interaction is then to share and discuss the content of the podcast within a community of online users who are concerned by similar topics. Remote and dispersed interaction has many pitfalls, but it can at least shape people’s expectations about the therapeutic process, and help to show those that are hurting from social or psychological disruption are not alone or isolated?

Podcasting as therapy, might initially be understood as an entry point to the process of healing rather than the catalyst of understanding, reflection and change itself. To be fully therapeutic a face-to-face return of thoughts and feelings has to take place. Listening to how these conversations work in practice might offer benefit to people who are feeling challenged, who want to review their circumstances, or who might want to nurture their personal growth more effectively?

In the next blog, I’m going to think about the tips that are relevant to therapy sessions, both from the participant and the therapist’s position, and relate them to advice that is given about good hosting for a podcast. There is an affinity between these two roles, and it would be useful to identify what that means in practice. Rather than being therapy itself, which is clearly defined as the interaction between a participant and a guide, podcasting offers some potential for reflexive thinking and understanding, so its worth exploring in more detail.