According to my childhood diary, I wanted to be a psychologist since I was 9-years-old. When I was first asked to provide consultation on a television show, my initial inclination was to decline. I was working full-time as a licensed clinical and forensic psychologist at a University, Principal Investigator on federal grants, training and teaching therapists regionally and across our country, doing a number of public speaking engagements nationally, and am currently Associate Professor of Psychiatry and Pediatrics at the University of Massachusetts Medical School and the Executive Director of a trauma center which serves the entire Commonwealth of Massachusetts, in addition to being the mother of three young children and trying to have some sort of personal life. The story goes, while traveling in California, I met someone socially who encouraged me and then inspired me to try television as his company was looking for experts with professional credentials. Although I initially declined primarily due to the fact that it was far outside my comfort zone and my schedule was already out-of-control, with some prodding and pep-talking, I decided to take a risk and try television, after seeing there were experts before me with professional pedigrees who were well-established in the field and, I’m a person who says yes to opportunities. You only have one life. Thus, in 2015, I began working for a television show, Seven Year Switch, and entered a world unfamiliar to me in which I would become familiar with terms such as “call time,” “HMU,” “B-roll” “Jib,” “VTR,” and countless others. Let’s be clear: I did not own a single headshot or a lip gloss. All this said, my experience in the television world has been nothing short of wonderful. I have met so many dynamic, smart, and friendly people from production assistants to audio-guys and gals to executive producers who work around the clock to produce these docuseries. I have been blown away by the manner in which I have been able to reach an audience via a platform I never imagined using in my professional world. The downside of the negative messages I receive via social media and other outlets attacking my personal appearance, professional credibility, or ethics is far superseded by the rewards of working with incredible people and the positivity we have from viewers at home. I receive calls and emails on a daily basis from fans of the show who were touched by one of our couples’ experience or who benefited from psychoeducational information provided on relationships, trauma, or communication strategies by myself or one of my colleagues on these different shows.
It goes without saying, but I must emphasize: Reality docuseries, or the exercises within them, are not evidence-based treatments. Notwithstanding the fact that arranged marriages have existed for centuries, Married at First Sight is a “social experiment” that was created in the context of a Danish television program. I provide training in trauma, trauma-informed care and evidence-based practices and treatments across the country. To be clear, “Switch Therapy” on Seven Year Switch is a concept that was created within the context of a television show. It is no more of a therapy than “Donut Therapy” or “Walking in the Woods Therapy.” When the show started, there was no “evidence-base.” There are no clinical trials supporting the effectiveness or efficaciousness of these approaches. “Switch Therapy” is not my terminology, but that of the production company. That being said, in my personal and professional experience, many of the individuals and couples who participated in Seven Year Switch benefited from this experience in extraordinary ways. We have not “deconstructed” the "Switch Therapy" process so I cannot be clear what was most beneficial: Two weeks away from their spouse, 2 weeks of journaling and introspection, 2 weeks of no social media, telephones, television, or 2 weeks of being paired with someone who is also struggling in their marriage and who has the qualities you think you want in your spouse or qualities more similar to your personality… or the exercises and activities they did together. I can tell you that most of them will tell me they do not regret doing television and were able to get positive benefits out of it, from learning new communication skills to obtaining clarity in their personal lives. One young woman stated that particularly after watching it play back, the show, “saved her life.”
Within my role as a consultant to cast and production, I have had to be clear about what my role is and is not. I have contracts with a production company/Network, the ethical standards of my profession, and my personal integrity to consider within my role as an expert in this capacity. Just like conflicts in relationships in which your needs conflict with the needs of others, there are times in which my professional and ethical responsibilities as a psychologist do not line up with the needs of production or those developing a television show. At those times, I have voiced my concerns and we have always been able to come to agreements in a way that makes sense for everyone involved. I have been extraordinarily lucky to have worked with a production company with heart and which is run by people with enormous integrity and care for others, who have in my personal experience, placed the well-being of individuals, couples, and families first – before the needs or demands of the actual television show(s) the majority of the time.
It must also be stated that at no point should the role I (or others) provide be construed as replacing actual therapy. We are NOT individuals' or couples’ therapists on these television shows or in real life. We do not have a client/therapist or doctor/patient relationship at any point during production or any point, period. Outside companies are hired to conduct the psychological evaluations of cast members. My role that I am hired to do as a “Relationship Expert” is to provide consultation to cast of a television show and consultation to production on topics that fall within my expertise. We provide support and consultation to the brave individuals who are willing to have their lives documented. It is noted that this is not therapy, nor should it replace real therapy and participants on these shows sign various consent forms acknowledging the roles and limitations of the "experts." Through these unique experience, I have been privileged to meet many incredible human beings who are open and ready to take risks to find love, save their relationships, or find some clarity in their lives. As an expert in trauma, I work with individuals to identify where their trauma histories may be interfering and when I believe they are being triggered or distressed by the unique circumstances of filming – and I advocate for them to the extent I possibly can. I also work to identify ways in which individuals may be impacted by their prior life experiences and make suggestions for self-care strategies to manage their current stressors. I work with individuals and couples to secure therapists in their communities (typically paid for by production, who encourages aftercare) and encourage them to seek the support of licensed professionals who can provide them actual therapy and with whom they can have an actual confidential client/therapist relationship.
Working in television has been fun, exciting, challenging, at times exhausting, but professionally stimulating. Never did I think I would be working within this context, but I am beyond grateful for saying yes to the opportunity and for the individuals, couples, other experts, production crew and viewers for making this opportunity one of the greatest experiences of my professional life.