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Published: Saturday, 7/7/2001

Dr. Laura isn't the last word in psychology

Dr. Norine G. Johnson. Dr. Laura Schlessinger. Dr. Judith L. Rapoport. Dr. George Tesar. Dr. Glen O. Gabbard.

Which individual is a noted psychologist or psychiatrist?

Most people would probably pick Laura Schlessinger - “Dr. Laura” - who counsels an audience of millions on her radio talk show, and writes popular advice books and articles.

Try another question: Which individual has no degree in psychology or psychiatry, no record of doing research in those fields, or publishing articles in medical or scientific journals?

That's the Dr. Laura enigma.

Many Dr. Laura fans know that her doctor's degree is in physiology, which is the study of basic chemical and other processes that take place in living things. She occasionally mentions it on the air. Dr. Schlessinger is a licensed marriage, family, and child counselor in California.

Nevertheless, she remains an enormously popular source of advice on psychological and other problems.

Estimates have put her radio audience at almost 20 million listeners. At some points, 60,000 people from the United States and Canada reportedly have been on the phone trying to reach Dr. Laura for advice. Her books have been on the national best seller lists for weeks, with sales exceeding 2.5 million copies.

Other listeners, however, may not recognize distinctions between different kinds of doctors.

There are medical doctors (MDs) and doctors who provide care in health fields like psychology, optometry, and chiropractic. Then there are dozens of other kinds of doctors who have earned Ph.D degrees in fields that don't involve health care. Those include English, history, art, music, dance, recreation, and education.

Real experts like Drs. Johnson (president of the American Psychological Association), Rapoport (chief of child psychiatry at the National Institute of Mental Health), Tesar (chairman of psychiatry and psychology at the Cleveland Clinic), and Gabbard (renowned psychoanalyst at the Menninger Clinic) have little public name recognition.

Who speaks to the ordinary citizen about mental health? Physiologist Laura Schlessinger.

“If she's really speaking to an audience of 18 million a day, we're a nation in deep trouble,” Dr. Robert Epstein lamented in an editorial in the July-August edition of Psychology Today. He has a Ph.D in psychology from Harvard University and is editor-in-chief of the magazine.

Coincidentally, Dr. Epstein hosts the magazine's own version of a talk show, available on the Internet at www.psychologytoday.com. Aspiring competitor to Dr. Laura or not, he raised the same concerns voiced by some other doctors of psychology and psychiatry.

First, Dr. Laura's advice often is divisive. Using a few seconds or minutes of information from one person, she drives people away from one another, including spouse from spouse and children from parents. Therapists generally strive to preserve such ties.

Second, Dr. Laura often gives the impression that people should not be given a second chance because they rarely change for the better. They do.

Third, Dr. Laura's hard-line approach includes characterizing people in abusive ways (“He's evil”) and encouraging violence. (“Haul off and belt him across the mouth”). Those approaches rarely are helpful.

When given advice, people tend to be selective. They decide what to accept, reject, and modify.

Knowledge about how Dr. Laura relates to the bigger world of mental health professionals may help her fans in making those judgments and using her advice wisely.

Michael Woods is the Blade's science editor. Email him at mwoods@theblade.com.



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