Meet Me in Illinois: A Behind-the-Scenes Look at Making APA Psychotherapy Videos

By Resarani Johnson, APA Video Supervisor

The APA Psychotherapy Video Series presents distinguished psychologists demonstrating specific approaches to a wide range of patient problems. Designed for clinical training and continuing education, these videos and DVDs were created to provide psychology students and practitioners with expert introductions to various therapeutic approaches and hands-on knowledge of how to treat particular patient issues. To learn more, including how to use these in classes or workshops, see About the APA Psychotherapy Video Series.

Making a psychotherapy training video is uniquely challenging. Imagine you are a psychologist, having spent most of your career either in the therapy room or writing scholarly articles and books. Now try to condense all of your knowledge and expertise into 90-minute therapy demonstration video. Now, imagine someone—let’s say a video producer, like me—puts a kibosh on your expectations and tells you to not try to be so comprehensive and not cover everything you know, but instead to just “be natural… as if you’re not being filmed.”

Simplifying a great body of scientific and scholarly knowledge down to its most concise points is indeed a hardy task that is easier said than done, and it certainly should not be mistaken for “dumbing down.” I understand their frustration, but will never know it firsthand. Although I am in the world of psychology, I am neither a therapist nor an academic, and so I try to put myself in their shoes as much as possible.

Setting Expectations

It’s a thin tightrope to walk. Our target audience consists in part of practicing therapists, researchers, and professors, but the main audience is graduate students. So, my first goal is getting guest experts to understand that they are talking not to their peers, but to the students that will one day be their colleagues. My second goal is convincing the guest experts not to second guess their on-camera performances. I’ve found that lending them a final video of a related topic or approach well before the shoot commences helps them to ease into the idea of being on-camera, and visualize what the end result may look like. That doesn’t mean, of course, that we don’t come across little snags, such as when the guest therapist forgets to look at the roundtable participants and not the cameras when they’re answering a question. But these are small things, and we can usually stop and reshoot whenever they crop up.

Often there are moments toward the end of the day where the guest therapist has a moment to reflect on their performance. This usually includes self-criticism and lamentations, “I wish I would’ve…,” or “Do you think we could redo…,” or the more infamous request: “Can we edit the beginning of the [said] therapy session and mix that in with the latter part of the other session?” The answer is always no. I advise them, as the oil canvas in my office says: “Don’t overthink it.”

Filming

On the first day, three therapy sessions are shot. The guest therapist selects the best one, which goes into the final video product. The next day, university counseling and psychology students and instructors at Governors State University, in University Park, Illinois—where our sessions are filmed—screen the chosen therapy session and participate in a question-and-answer session. They also get to meet and have lunch with the guest therapist, and make fruitful networking connections.

Many key players help make our productions successful: the guest therapists, client volunteers, roundtable participants, as well as our studio crew, and coordinators. Sometimes, we’ll hire actors to perform roles based on actual case material with identifying characteristics removed, or we’ll have actors play roles that are completely fictional and conceived to help illustrate the guest therapists’ approach. We do this whenever we may be demonstrating a sensitive presenting issue or difficult topic.

Group Therapy Sessions

The most challenging demonstrations often are those featuring group therapy. Getting one person to commit to recording a therapy session is hard enough. Asking a group of strangers to divulge their intimate thoughts and feelings in front of other people, on-camera, is even harder. Which is why I’m always on pins and needles the day that these shoots occur. We always have backup client participants on speed dial, in the event anyone decides to renege at the last minute (and yes, this has happened on several occasions). By contrast, the easiest sessions usually depict couples’ therapy. These client participants are less likely to cancel their session and usually are the most eager to get their issues resolved.

Shortly after a shoot has wrapped, most guest therapists say that the process wasn’t as bad as they originally anticipated—in fact, most enjoy it. From viewer feedback, we know that students, therapists, and instructors alike enjoy these videos and find them to be a valuable teaching aid. Overall, what makes this work rewarding is seeing the client volunteers leave the sessions feeling so much better than they were when they arrived.