Four Years of ShrinkTalk.Net and a College Student Asks an Important Question: Is the Site Controversial?

As I continue to eat and drink virtually everything in sight – this is what I call the Month of Hedonism for Writing a Book and Screw Everything Else – it escaped me that last week was the four year anniversary of ShrinkTalk.Net. Normally I post hate mail as a twisted form of celebration (I’m absolutely fascinated by people who take the time to write walls of hate on websites), but this year I thought I’d include some correspondence with a college student and his classmates who had questions about the site. We had an interesting dialogue which you can read, with commentary, below:

1. Do your clients know you write about them? Do you obtain any kind of release of information from them aside from a verbal agreement?

– There is a bit of a misunderstanding here. I don’t write about my clients. I write stories based on my experiences as a Psychologist. That includes writing things about my practice and my colleagues. My job is to ensure that my clients’ confidentiality is protected, and I take that part of the writing extremely seriously.

I don’t know how many clients know about ShrinkTalk or my book. I don’t announce it to them, but I don’t hide it either. But asking them to sign a written release or agree to a verbal one is not relevant, given what I said above, and could even be considered a form of solicitation, which is definitely unethical.

2. Do your clients read your blog? If so, what do they think about it?

– The ones who read it and actually talk to me about it say very positive things. But many of them have known me for awhile now and recognize what I’m trying to accomplish. I could see how, on first blush, someone might not take to the site right away, but if you really read the messages built into the stories, they are more important than what you might expect.

3. Do you feel that your site is controversial, and how do you feel about it being discussed in an ethics course? What would you say to someone who believed that your site was unethical?

– I like the idea of ShrinkTalk being discussed in an ethics class. Anything that gets people to think is a good thing. I believe it would be a stretch, though, to call it controversial. We’re talking about a website about psychology here, not a sex tape. If someone believes it’s unethical, my first thought is that he/she is missing the boat on what ShrinkTalk is all about. This is a site designed to debunk the myths about mental health, to break down stigmas for the mentally ill, to teach psychological principles in a way that’s not dry or boring and to help people understand what the life of a shrink is all about. These are not bad things, and using clinical material is done all the time in psychological and medical journals. The only reason you don’t hear those publications being labeled as unethical is because they are sterile and clinical. But the principles remain the same. So those who see the site and unethical need to look a little more closely, understand more fully, and save the Ethics Whistle for those situations that really call for it.

At that point I asked the student to keep me informed about what his classmates thought about my responses. It wasn’t as positive as I had hoped:

Truth be told everyone had mixed feelings about your publications. Though we all could see the merit in the spirit of your musings the general consensus is that it crosses into that ethical grey area.

The major comments about your site are that though you use words like ‘shrink’ and ‘crazy’ in a humorous context it still projects a negative image onto professionals, and those seeking psychological services. Also, it was noted that though the basis of your efforts may be good it comes across as gimmicky, and you seem to be more a brand than a therapist with promoting your site, book, facebook, and twitter.

Over all, the feeling my classmates and I were left with is that though not really unethical it does come across as unprofessional.

Once again I thank you for answering my questions as it helped guide the conversation of the class. If we have not offended you with our thoughts by now [edited for flow] could you tell us what your colleagues think?

I was impressed that even though he was telling me that he and his classmates saw me as a Dr. Phil wannabe, he wanted to know more. That’s pretty gutsy:

What do my colleagues think? Well, I got fired from a very well-paying job for doing it, but that’s mainly because I was connected at that time to Tucker Max, who is a very polarizing figure. My boss enjoyed the content and it likely wouldn’t be an issue now because I’m writing on my own. Most of the professionals I talk to really like it, save for the very conservative analyst-types. Some have expressed concerns similar to yours, but when they’ve really taken a close look, read the mission statement, dug into some posts, saw the comments and the positive response it’s gotten, they almost always change their mind.

Of course there is branding involved here, it would be silly to even challenge that notion. I’m not interested in being the next Dr. Drew, but a small dose of fame is appealing to me. But branding doesn’t take away from public benefit, and the site has helped a lot of people. It’s not a popular site because there’s some anonymous, ranting lunatic telling jokes at the expense of the mentally ill. It’s caught on because it’s a different take told by someone in the field who is sincerely saying, “everyone is crazy, we all have our problems, myself included, but that’s okay. Get the help if you need it. I did and it was wonderful. Don’t keep a stigma going that doesn’t need to exist.” My goal is to have people say “I’m going to therapy,” the same way they would say, “I’m going to the dentist.” When people no longer feel shame about mental health, I’ll feel like the job will be done.

I’m sure he and his classmates haven’t changed their opinion of me based on that response – they could be laughing out loud at my expense – but the message here is that you can’t worry about things like that. I have clients, friends and family who both literally and figuratively chase down people to seek their approval, to obtain validation, to be told they’re doing a job well done. You can’t ask that of everyone, it simply won’t work. You saw a snippet of me doing it here and it failed. No one will approve of everything you do, all of the time. You have to simply pursue what you believe is right and worthy. If validation from others comes from that, great. If not, take your approval from within, knowing you continue to push for your cause.

If you’ve been around this site for one day, all four years or something in between, let me just say thank you. Your comments (positive, critical and flat-out hateful) have been awesome to read and has made this experience absolutely fabulous. Stick around, there’s more to come.

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9 Responses to “Four Years of ShrinkTalk.Net and a College Student Asks an Important Question: Is the Site Controversial?”

  1. T.J. says:

    Four years, dude. Wow. Congrats on keeping up with something like this for so long.

    /your book is on my birthday list. I look forward to reading it.

  2. Anne says:

    I find your blog and writings to be more of a witty/new school version of Yalom’s writings. I don’t think he was ever under fire for being unethical.

    Also, if someone is seeking your services and googles you, they will be well aware that you are a writer and write about your experiences and they can make the decision if they want to work with you or not. You don’t write with anonymity so I think that is ethical.

    Keep it up. As a colleague, I enjoy reading your work.

  3. Wayland says:

    ‘My goal is to have people say “I’m going to therapy,” the same way they would say, “I’m going to the dentist.” When people no longer feel shame about mental health, I’ll feel like the job will be done.’

    I hope you get quoted for saying this for years to come.

  4. Chris says:

    I think those students need to lighten up a little. People take things meant to be tongue-in-cheek far too seriously. OMG! Somebody referred to a psychologist as a shrink! Oh noez! This site is filled with humor, but also has a lot to say about issues dealing with the practice of therapy. As a soon-to-be (hopefully) grad student in psychology, I find a lot of useful information here mixed in with the humor.

    Congratulations on the anniversary, and I’m hoping there are more to come.

  5. Louise says:

    I’m very glad you are not a Dr Drew or Dr Phil type. Their brand of therapy is very condescending and seems to address issues that I can’t really relate to. What I love about your site is that you address issues like dating and getting over a relationship which I feel in general, most people don’t think is a big deal. Please keep it up. Buying your book this weekend!

  6. Lori says:

    Well, I think the students need to develop a richer sense of humour and compassion if they want to be successful therapists. I realize that since this was for school you’re probably just trying to say what the teacher expects so you can pass. But in your own mind think about this. There is one way of talking about “crazies” that is affectionate and recognizes the extent to which we are all “crazy” and another way of which sets up therapists (and students) as the “protectors” of what is “ethical” when “you” talk about people like me. I just found this website, it makes me laugh so hard because it is sooooo like what therapy is really like! (oh and sorry for all the ” ” :>)

  7. Nadia says:

    I’ve been reading since day 1 when Tucker put up a thread on RMMB. There is always an awkwardness in healthcare when discussing patients, even when HIPPA is followed. I’m still in school but the importance of HIPPA is drilled into us.

    That being said, I see you have humbly taken the criticism of the students to heart. From an outsider, let me say this — they really sound like the students who take themselves too seriously. ‘Stick up you ass’ might offend them, but I think it’s the medical term. Professionalism is important, yes, but so is being human. Laugh a little.

    Keep it up Dr. Rob! The website and the binging.

  8. Danielle says:

    I know the back story to this exchange, and actually these aren’t college students but advanced grad students, which I think makes a big difference in how to interpret their comments. I can assure you they do not in fact have “a stick up their ass” :), and are some of the funniest and most caring people I’ve ever met. The point about having a sense of humor is well taken (as this profession is tremendously rewarding but also extremely draining if you don’t keep your sense of humor intact) but misses the point of what they were trying to say, and the conversation they were trying to start. It’s not as elitist snobs that they are examining Dr. Dobrenski’s (or any other psychologist’s) actions, but as people who are interested in protecting the dignity not only of their clients, but also of the profession itself. As anyone who’s been through a grad program in psychology knows, it’s challenging in ways you can’t imagine when you begin and you invest too much of yourself not to care about how the profession is represented.
    To Chris – best of luck with the application process! That’s so much fun;) I hope you’ll be a fellow grad student soon. I’d be interested to see if and how your views change just as mine did from when I was an undergrad. Good luck!

  9. Kim says:

    I’ve been reading this site for a little over 2 years and like that it has very honest insight … often at Dr. Rob’s own expense.

    In response to the question “Do your clients read your blog?” Have you (or how often) do you have a reader of your blog seek you out for professional services? Is that awkward?