Sound of mind

Jackson Musker on six mental health podcasts for psychologists (and anyone, really).

For more than a decade, I’ve made my living in the land of podcasts. I write them, I research guests for them, I hem and haw over hums and half-botched edits. Back in 2007, when I began, I never would have guessed that this medium I love would grow into a significant source of mental health conversations and information. Here are six podcasts that showcase the field in surprising ways, and that might bolster your psychology practice (or simply make your afternoon a bit more bearable).

Food Psych
There’s much to admire about Christy Harrison’s Food Psych, which tackles our relationship with food – from eating disorders, to body image, to diet culture and its perpetuation of shame. You could home in on Harrison’s mix of intelligence and compassion, as she draws upon both current health studies and her own history with disordered eating. You could laud her range of guests – people of all body sizes, races, genders, and mental health histories – which lends the show intersectional perspectives and nuance. (One example of many: guest Joy Cox unpacks how growing up in the Black church shaped her feelings toward food.) You could even applaud the show’s cheeky bleeping of calories and other metrics that often lead to unhealthy comparisons and self-loathing.

But maybe the most impressive aspect of Food Psych is its relentlessness: in episode after episode (a whopping 250+ now), the show adds another salvo to its impassioned argument against diet culture, insisting that dieting’s emphasis on food deprivation does more harm than good. Browse the menu and select a few topics that might nourish you – or help you relate better to a loved one, or to a patient who’s struggling with these realities. And then have your fill.

No Feeling is Final  
Some podcasts about psychology can feel, well, clinical: an expert in a given field offers third-person advice. Honor Eastly’s No Feeling is Final (ABC) couldn’t be further from those. In her ‘memoir show’, the young Australian throws us into the thick of her struggles with suicidal ideation, self-harm, and anxiety (or, as she puts it, ‘firetown in all my gooey insides’).

Eastly carries her microphone everywhere. She records conversations in bed with her boyfriend – the one who hides her meds so she won’t overdose. She tapes phone calls with her twin sister – the one who brings her a framed photograph to liven up her hospital room. (A nurse confiscates the glass, for safety reasons.) She even brilliantly re-enacts ‘The Voice’, as she calls it – the one inside her head that insists that she’s a failure and not worth saving.

If this sounds like difficult listening, it is… but it’s also disarmingly funny, whimsical (that’s Eastly on the ukulele), and damning of a flawed system. To convey how maddening it can be to navigate mental health services, Eastly creates a nightmarish game show in which ‘winning’ simply means receiving a severe diagnosis. This episode, ‘The Vast Wasteland’, should be required listening for psychology professionals. What a way to walk a mile in a patient’s shoes!

Again and again, Eastly admits that her podcast is simply ‘one person’s story’ and not to overgeneralise from it. But its specificity is also its superpower: it lets one person’s inner world – in all its messiness and mundanity and marvels – explode to sonic life.

Therapy for Black Girls
Dr Joy Harden Bradford’s Therapy for Black Girls is part info hub and part safe haven for Black women of all ages. The licensed psychologist (and gifted conversationalist – is there a license for that?) delves into a staggering array of mental health topics with her guests.

In one episode, she discusses how video games (hello, Animal Crossing) help players deal with pandemic-induced isolation and uncertainty – and how Black gamers can find kindred groups online. In another, she pins down definitions of ‘polyamory’ and ‘consensual non-monogamy’ so that people considering entering into those relationships can have informed conversations with their partners. She hops from practical topics (how insurance plays into therapy payment), to political ones (how to manage anxiety during an election), to psychological primers (‘exploring bipolar disorders’).

Though she occasionally offers up her own insights, her deep curiosity and unstuffy questions of guests do the heavy lifting, carrying these episodes to unexpected places. And throughout, it’s clear that she’s game to learn new things right alongside her listeners; her expertise doesn’t close the door to new discoveries. In fact, a door might be a fitting metaphor for this whole podcast: Dr Joy flings one wide open for a community too long shut out of mental health conversations – and welcomes her listeners into a remarkable shared space.  

Terrible, Thanks for Asking
Nora McInerny’s podcast was born of a simple idea: we don’t talk enough about the tough stuff. We bury our insecurities, we muddle through grief, we claim we’re ‘fine’ when we’re actually, as the title says, ‘Terrible, Thanks for Asking’. (Full disclosure, I once worked for the podcast’s parent company, American Public Media.)

To normalise not being okay, McInerny offers her mic to all manner of people ‘going through it’: the mother of an autistic Black boy fighting to find support for him, a ‘frat guy’ whose best friend and platonic soulmate died of cancer, an ex-Mormon who survived brutal gay conversation therapy. (The episode ‘Nathan’ remains a gut-wrenching stunner.) McInerny has a preternatural gift for commiseration. She listens with a sympathetic ear, chimes in with big-hearted humor, allows ample space for guests to cry or leave a sentence unfinished. Tuning in is like attending the ultimate support group.

It’s worth mentioning that McInerny’s interest in tough subjects – and her skill in navigating them – come partly from her backstory: in the span of six weeks in 2014, she lost both her father and her young husband to cancer and miscarried a child. Now in the midst of a powerful second act, McInerny supports whole communities who are tired of pretending that they’re not in pain. No matter how you’re feeling right now, steep in these stories and find solace.

Time is a funny thing, but few people make it funnier – and more moving – than Heavyweight host Jonathan Goldstein. In each episode, the affable, eccentric Canadian helps someone investigate an unresolved question or deep regret from their past.

Some of his forays are downright zany (one ends in the musician Moby’s living room, of all places), but they run the emotional gamut. In ‘Jesse’, Goldstein brings together a guilt-riddled driver and the bicyclist he struck, who surprises everyone with his response. In ‘Scott’ (maybe the best episode of all) an addict who once pawned a family heirloom for drug money hopes – with Goldstein’s help – to track it down and prove to his father he’s a changed man.

Neat stories, you might be thinking, but what does this have to do with mental health? Apart from the fact that these narratives touch on depression, trauma, loss, and other psychological minefields, Goldstein’s relationships with his subjects are case studies in empathy and affirmation: he hears people for who they are. Therapy practitioners will find inspiration in his humane and self-deprecating approach. (By the way, the show’s website also recommends professional therapy, claiming that Goldstein is ‘but a well-intentioned Canadian fumbling his way through dark and murky territory…he doesn’t really know what he’s doing’). But let’s not sell his work short, either: the stories we tell ourselves about the past can be immensely powerful – and frequently misleading. Sometimes it helps to have a kind Canadian get to the bottom of things and reframe those narratives for us.  

The Sea in the Sky
A bonus recommendation from yours truly! When I set out to tell the story of a marine biologist exploring a moon of Saturn, I didn’t think I’d be writing about panic anxiety syndrome. Then life intervened: midway through scripting The Sea in the Sky, I suffered a series of panic attacks that left me gasping for air. My face and fingertips remained numb for hours afterward; my body felt as if it’d been pummeled by Manny Pacquiao. I talked to my doctor and family members and finally to a clinical psychologist. She surmised that anxiety (long untreated), a recent life change (I’d come out as queer), and isolation had rendered my mind fertile ground for panic.

With therapy and medication, the attacks dissipated, thankfully. But I didn’t want to stay quiet about them: I decided that my protagonist, Bee, would experience similar attacks, even as she boldly explores new worlds and makes scientific breakthroughs. I liked demonstrating that each of us (real or fictional!) contains multitudes, and that we benefit from opening up about our mental health with someone we trust. When Bee finally divulges her panic history, her co-pilot’s reaction takes her aback: he walks her through a breathing exercise he learned as a nervous young jet jockey. (The first-ever mindfulness technique performed in Saturn’s orbit?!) I hope that those of us dealing with anxiety, queer identity issues, loneliness, or any number of earthly situations might hear some helpful echoes in Bee’s predicament on her faraway moon… and realise that we’re not quite as alone as we fear. Happy listening!

Jackson Musker is a Los Angeles-based writer and producer of public radio shows and podcasts. His audio drama, The Sea in the Sky, was named one of the Top 10 Audiobooks of 2020 on Audible, alongside work by Neil Gaiman and Mariah Carey (at which point his head exploded). Twitter: @jacksonmusker

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