Other People's Problems

How Other People's Problems invites audiences into (normally) private therapy sessions

CBC's new podcast opens the doors to real life therapy, with a real life therapist, to demystify the discourse surrounding mental health.

Producer Jodie Martinson explains the tricky journalistic boundaries her team navigated when making the show

Therapist and researcher Hillary McBride brings microphones into sessions with her patients in CBC's new podcast Other People's Problems. (CBC)

Why would anyone allow a microphone into their therapy session?

CBC's new podcast Other People's Problems hopes to answer that question by opening the doors to real life therapy, with a real life therapist, in an effort to demystify the discourse surrounding mental health.

The show features sessions between therapist and researcher Hillary McBride and eight of her patients, giving listeners an intensely personal glimpse into their lives and struggles. The podcast launches April 10.

CBC Radio spoke with the podcast's creator and co-producer Jodie Martinson about the tricky journalistic boundaries she had to navigate with McBride in the two-plus years it took to bring the podcast from concept to air.

What is Other People's Problems about?

Other People's Problems is the show where we open the door on real life therapy sessions with people who are going through their real problems. It's all in an effort to destigmatize mental health.

We've seen people in emergency rooms getting treatment. We've seen people on television. We've seen all sorts of shows that talk about treatment for your physical health.

We've never really gotten behind the scenes to see what it looks like when you're getting treatment for your mental health, and that's what we're trying to do here, all in an effort to say: if we truly believe mental health is part of just health care — and not a moral failing — then we need to be able to show what it actually looks like when people are getting help.

And then what I think will happen is other people's problems will look a lot like our own.

If we truly believe mental health is part of just health care — and not a moral failing — then we need to be able to show what it actually looks like when people are getting help.- Jodie Martinson

How did the idea of the podcast come about?

Several years ago, my partner and I went for couples therapy. That was my first experience with therapy and counselling. And I was blown away by how just a few sessions were really transformative for us in how we understood our conflicts and our role in the conflicts …

I went back to my job producing daily radio and I thought how frustrating [it is] that we do so many awareness campaigns about mental health — like, you know, "Whatever national day of this!" Or we do stories about people who are in really deep crises like a suicide epidemic in young people.

And so I thought, wouldn't it be good if we did a show where we actually got very real and concrete about the advice and the information that therapists and counselors have, and that for them is very basic?

But for most of us we would never get exposed to it both because it's stigmatized to go to therapy, and secondly because it's really expensive.

Real people. Real Therapy. 0:44

How did you find Hillary McBride? How did the show become about her and her work?

I made a first contact with her, and she called me back almost right away and said: "I totally get why you want to do this. And I'm in. And I think I have, you know, a handful of people off the top of my head who would be great for it, and would be at a point in their therapy where it would be safe for them to participate." And so we got rolling really quickly.

When the show was first announced, there were some concerns that this project could be invasive to the subjects' privacy. We're listening in on something that is very, intensely personal. How did you navigate these concerns when you were making the show, so that it wasn't harmful to Hillary's patients?

CBC has Journalistic Standards and Practices (JSP), and this show is different than the way we normally do things. We're getting extraordinary access, and we needed to evaluate that differently.

And so [CBC's JSP director] David Studer signed off on us being allowed to record, edit and then go back to the people who were recorded and have them listen to it, and say "I consent" or "I don't consent to this being used."

That's very unusual and certainly not the way we usually do things. We really want to be very upfront to say that this is what we did, so that people listening … know it has been very respectful of the people who have been recorded.

We have given them the audio at its final cut and said: "Are you still comfortable?" And they've all come back and said yes, which is really miraculous.

How was the show recorded? Were there any producers with Hillary during her sessions?

No. I left the recorder and two microphones with her. And so before sessions where the person had agreed to be recorded, Hillary would pull the equipment out, hit record and then they would just go ahead and we just trusted that the equipment would work.

Of course, Hillary was seeing clients at all sorts of times who were part of this and who weren't. So it wasn't feasible for us to be there both because we would really change the atmosphere of the room and affect the therapy by being present, but secondly because we just don't have a budget to pay someone to be there all day for weeks and months on end — and we recorded for months and months and months.

Other People's Problems producer Jodie Martinson sought out to demystify discussions about mental health with a different approach than most other journalism. (CBC)

How did you come to the decision to take the final cut of the interview back to the subjects? You mentioned in an interview with Hillary that it's really very different from how we normally do journalism.

I actually talked to several therapists and counselors while also talking to Hillary, and to a wide range of people in the field including psychiatrists as well. And we asked: how could we do this? What would it take for us to get into real-life counselling sessions?

And so we decided that there were a few parameters. One was it didn't seem like there was value in getting people who are really ill. … That person cannot provide consent in a way that feels really good.

My personal belief as a storyteller is that we need to trust people to have the wisdom about when to share their stories or not.- Jodie Martinson

And then we decided that we were getting unprecedented access to their therapy, and therefore we needed to in some way make sure that there was no harm being done. We didn't want the act of us creating this podcast to cause harm to people. And so the best way that we've helped to do that was to take what we are creating and go back to the person himself or herself.

My personal belief as a storyteller is that we need to trust people to have the wisdom about when to share their stories or not.

Did making this podcast make you think differently about how journalists and the press cover mental health in general? Should we be covering it differently?

I guess the only thing I think about now is the difficulty of doing this, or the discomfort we all feel when we think about opening the door to our own.

Say we had a therapy session ourselves. The discomfort we feel, I think, is a sign of how stigmatized mental health still is and how very abstract our conversations about it are.

We're so good now in the media talking about it. We have a level of awareness that's way better than it used to be. But we really aren't doing a very good job of talking about the tools to have healthy relationships, to feel healthy mentally, to take care of our mental health, to prevent depression, to deal with anxiety…

I think hearing people in the throes of a [personal problem or] mental health difficulty being exposed to ideas about how they can help themselves are beneficial to us all. It makes us feel less alone, and that's the real goal.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.