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Sensationalism at its Best: Psychiatric Illness on TV

Let’s face it; people are drawn to television programming that evokes emotion.  Whether it’s a love story, action film, comedy, or a heart-wrenching drama, we are drawn to watching the emotional experiences of others. Sometimes, watching these illustrations of life serve as a means of fantasizing, sometimes escape and wonder, sometimes amusement; and always an experience of emotion in response to what we see.  We naturally attempt to relate or empathize with the characters on the screen.  So, how do we react when relating to the character is something we are not able to do? What if we cannot understand their emotional experiences, their thoughts, or their choices?

Television has been flooded in recent years with “reality” shows about psychological disorders. From OCD to compulsive hoarding sufferers, documentary-style programs have attempted to capture the experiences of these individuals in their daily lives and in snapshots of evidence-based treatment for public display. Public reaction seems to be generally positive, as evidenced by the continued growth of this television genre; however, there is also a consistent undertone of questioning whether there is an exploitative nature of such programming. Is it helpful to the public, or, is it simply voyeuristic, like a train wreck we cannot help but watch?

In my last post, I discussed the potential distortions, misinformation, and other potential disadvantages of these docu-drama programs. However disadvantageous these programs may seem, there are also potential advantages.

The Undisputed Advantages

There are a few clear societal benefits to this new programming genre. First and foremost, they do raise awareness. They inform the public of problems of which they may never have heard or understood. For example, there will be at least a couple of people reading this who saw the word ‘trichotillomania’ above and recognized it as being a disorder in which individuals pull out their hair because they saw someone on tv who had it. Awareness is something for which we, as mental health professonals, strive, as it helps to educate the public, provide access to treatment, provide impetus for research funding and development of community resources, etc. Furthermore, as public awareness grows, public acceptance grows, and any shame or embarrassment associated with the disorder decreases. Awareness is good.

On another note, not only do the individuals featured on these shows receive the televised intervention, but they are frequently provided with follow-up services free-of-charge, such as six months of paid psychotherapy or professional organizing. So, although the shows are frequently filmed in a whirlwind period of time, there is often continuity of services to assist the participant. This is good.

Bottom Line—Television is not Reality

This is television. It is not ‘reality.’ Let’s face it, day-to-day reality is not interesting enough to be compelling TV programming. People would not watch if it were not made to be consistently interesting, thought provoking, or emotionally evocative. For this reason, there will be some who read this blog post and think, “Well, I love these shows because I have finally begun to understand why my mother had such a problem with clutter.” They feel understood or they can relate to the struggle depicted. Others may find the situations interesting or thought provoking, while others still, may find these shows exploitative. As a specialist in the treatment of these disorders, I see concern amongst my colleagues that the media has a tendency to sensationalize these problems, while also presenting them as being more simplistic to treat than they truly are. I believe this true. However, there is a tremendous advantage to the attention brought to these disorders; they encourage public discussion of the problems and may motivate individuals to seek professional help. And, in the end, the potential to improve quality of lives may very well be worth the distortion for entertainment value.

Dr. Deibler

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Sensationalism at its Best: Psychiatric Illness on TV

Marla W. Deibler, PsyD

Marla W. Deibler, Psy.D., is a clinical psychologist and nationally-recognized expert in anxiety disorders and the obsessive-compulsive spectrum, including trichotillomania and other body-focused repetitive behaviors, obsessive-compulsive disorder, hoarding, and tic disorders. She is the Founder and Executive Director of The Center for Emotional Health of Greater Philadelphia in New Jersey, an outpatient facility specialized in providing evaluation and evidence-based, cognitive-behavioral therapies for these and other difficulties. She currently serves on the Board of Directors of OCD-NJ, the New Jersey affiliate of the International OCD Foundation (IOCDF). Dr. Deibler gained her formative clinical experiences at the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) at the National Institutes of Health (NIH), Children’s National Medical Center, and the Kennedy Krieger Institute at Johns Hopkins University Medical Center. She gained specialized behavior therapy experience in the treatment of obsessive-compulsive spectrum disorders at the nationally-recognized Behavior Therapy Center of Greater Washington. Dr. Deibler served as a clinician at the National Center for Phobias, Anxiety, and Depression. She also served as Director of Behavioral Sciences at the Temple University School of Dentistry and served on the clinical faculty at Temple University Schools of Medicine and Allied Health as well as Temple University Children’s Medical Center. Dr. Deibler has published scientific research in peer-reviewed journals and has presented clinical training seminars and research findings at national and international meetings. She has appeared on the Dr. Oz Show, A&E’s “Hoarders”, TLC’s “Hoarding: Buried Alive”, CBS News, ABC News, FOX News, It’s Your Call with Lynn Doyle (CN8, Retirement TV), and CBS’s “Swift Justice with Nancy Grace”. She has been quoted by media outlets, including the Wall Street Journal, CNN, Philadelphia Inquirer, Philadelphia Daily News, and the Connecticut Post, among others. Dr. Deibler holds licenses to practice psychology in New Jersey (Lic. No. 35S100438000) and Pennsylvania (Lic. No. PS0157790). She is an active member of the American Psychological Association, Trichotillomania Learning Center, International OCD Foundation, OCD-New Jersey, Association for Behavioral and Cognitive Therapies, and Anxiety Disorders Association of America. Dr. Deibler resides in suburban Philadelphia with her husband (who is also a psychologist) and three children.

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APA Reference
Deibler, M. (2012). Sensationalism at its Best: Psychiatric Illness on TV. Psych Central. Retrieved on May 27, 2020, from


Last updated: 19 Nov 2012
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