September 5, 2011

Psychtember Interview with Dr. Carolyn Kaufman: Part 1

I'm delighted to have Dr. Carolyn Kaufman stop by the blog today for an interview! She's the author of The Writer's Guide to Psychology (which I have a copy of and highly recommend). Her interview is in two parts: Part 1 today, and Part 2 next week on Sept. 12.

First, a bit about her: 
Carolyn Kaufman is a clinical psychologist, an Associate Professor of Psychology, and a writing coach.  Her book, THE WRITER'S GUIDE TO PSYCHOLOGY: How to Write Accurately About Psychological Disorders, Clinical Treatment, and Human Behavior is a fun, easy-to-understand guide that helps writers avoid common misconceptions and inaccuracies and "get the psych right" in their stories. She blogs about writing for the Blog and Psychology Today. You can also learn more about The Writer's Guide to Psychology or follow her on Facebook or Google+

Note: These interviews are a combination of my own questions and a few submitted by anonymous others.

- What are the top misconceptions or "pop psychology" myths about teen mental illness (and its treatment)? How do the media (books, TV, movies, etc.) perpetuate these?

One of the biggest myths about teens (one you guys probably know is false) is that they’re all tortured, depressed, abusing drugs, and/or self-injuring.  In reality, there are lots of well-adjusted teens out there!  Granted, well-adjusted doesn’t make for good story conflict, but as I mention in response to another question below, it’s often best to focus on one or two problems with your teen characters, rather than to throw the whole diagnostic manual at them!

With regards to pop psychology myths – there are so many that pervade fiction across the board….things like the belief that schizophrenia is the same thing as multiple personalities (it’s not; they’re totally different), or that therapy clients lie on a couch (therapy clients sit up in a chair, just like the therapist), or that all therapists are either brilliant mindreaders (in reality, brilliant, mindreading therapists are usually authors’ mouthpieces) or bumbling morons (though a few morons sneak into any profession, someone who’s terrible with teens is less likely to stay in the business of seeing teens, so there are therapists out there that enjoy working with and are very helpful to teens). Oh, one more I have to mention – the myth that therapy is primarily a forum for the therapist to give advice.  While some therapists may offer carefully thought-out advice from time to time if the client wants it, the therapist’s job is really more about helping the client figure out what’s right for him or her.  So Dr. Phil couldn’t be farther from what therapy is really like.

- I've heard before of "bibliotherapy." Is there strong evidence that reading can help individuals with mental illness, and if so, what types of books?

Bibliotherapy can certainly be helpful for clients who like to read. It’s not the reading itself that’s considered most therapeutic (though as all of us who love books know, reading certainly can be therapeutic!), but the message/s of the books in question. Most often, a therapist recommends a book to her client because that book deals with issues the client is working on in therapy.  For example, depressed people are often consumed by negative thoughts about themselves, the world, and the future.  A therapist may work with her client to learn to think more realistically (note that I didn’t say they just needed to learn to Think Positive—sometimes asking people to think positively can backfire), and recommending a book like, say, David Burns’ Feeling Good: The New Mood Therapy ( can help the client better understand how and why the approach works.

It’s important to note that many if not most self-help books are not based in research, and many of them aren’t even written by people with degrees in psychology, so you can’t just head to the Self-Help section and grab a book off the shelf.

A couple of other books I really like that I have recommended include Aphrodite Matsakis’ book I Can’t Get Over It: A Handbook for Trauma Survivors (, and Emotional Blackmail: When the People in Your Life Use Fear, Obligation, and Guilt to Manipulate You by Susan Forward ( 

- Could fiction focusing on characters with mental disorders be a positive tool, or might it backfire and act as a trigger for a susceptible reader?

Yes, fiction can sometimes be helpful, too; some therapists also recommend particular movies.  Sometimes identifying with a character who is dealing with similar issues can be helpful.  Since, as I mentioned earlier, bibliotherapy is generally done as part of more traditional psychotherapy, the therapist wouldn’t be recommending in a vacuum.  In other words, he should have some idea whether the book would genuinely be helpful. Also, the client and therapist often talk about the book (and the client may be asked to journal as she reads during the week) so the client can deal with any feelings that come up.

I have seen people who are not involved in the client’s therapy recommend books that do more harm than good, though, so it does happen.  Often those people aren’t particularly familiar with the client’s problems and what’s most upsetting to them. In one case, a well-meaning acquaintance recommended Styron’s Darkness Visible ( – which is a memoir about how hellish and crippling depression is -- to someone who was horribly, suicidally depressed.  Unfortunately, the book only contributed to the client’s sense of hopelessness and she nearly killed herself.  Not the book’s fault, but it wasn’t a good match for where she was in treatment. (The happy end to the story – the person did recover from her depression.)

My tip if you ever want to help a friend or acquaintance out by recommending a book that helped you is to say just that – it was helpful to you, and you hope it will be helpful to them.  If it isn’t helping, though, then they shouldn’t feel obligated.

And with your characters – you can tip a character in one direction or another with a powerful book. 

When I'm finished with my current project, I'll be moving on to write about a high schooler who undergoes an extreme physical and mental trauma as a child and remains physically scarred.  What resources would you recommend utilizing for piecing together such a character and creating such a mindset?

I would recommend a good book on Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, like the one by Aphrodite Matsakis noted above.  She does address how disfigurement impacts trauma survivors.  Not everyone who experiences horrible things develops PTSD, but it sounds like you’re talking about a character who’s been profoundly impacted by trauma.

Thanks so much, Carolyn, for giving some very helpful answers to those questions!

Readers — Carolyn will be stopping by to answer follow-up questions, so if you have some, feel free to voice them in the comments below! And remember to check back for Part 2 of the interview next Monday.



  1. Great interview. I didn't know bibliotherapy was even something that could help people.

  2. The Writer's Guide to Psychology sounds like a great idea for a book. The portrayal of a character's mental state can really make or break a book. The situation with Darkness Visible is an interesting one in light of the recent YA Saves debate.

  3. This book sounds super interesting! I'll have to check it out at some point! I look forward to Interview part 2!


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