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’Think you can shrink?’ provides an alternate reality

Toronto, July 20, 2017

By Geoff Koehler

Dr. Tom Ungar lays on a bed with two actors in a scene of his reality-TV-style web series, Think you can shrink?
St. Michael’s Psychiatrist-in-Chief Dr. Tom Ungar right) lays on a bed with two actors in a scene of his reality-TV-style web series, Think you can shrink? The series challenged people who think they’re good at giving advice to try addressing common issues that psychiatrists treat. (Photo by Katherine Fibiger)

People may think they're good at giving advice, but St. Michael’s new Psychiatrist-in-Chief Dr. Tom Ungar wanted to put that to the test while also improving the way people talk about mental health issues. So, naturally, he developed a reality-TV-style web series called Think you can shrink?

“We have a bartender, hairdresser, grandmother or friend who we turn to for advice,” said Dr. Ungar, who joined St. Michael’s in June. “Think you can shrink? challenged similar everyday people to spend a day in my chair and demonstrate how they would help someone work through a challenging issue.”

The series’ concept was to educate people about mental health, reduce stigma and encourage people to seek professional help.

The wannabe shrinks were selected from a Facebook call for Ontarians who wanted to try their hand at armchair psychiatry. Judges included a psychiatrist, an emergency room or family doctor and celebrity Rick Campanelli, co-host of ET Canada.

While the contestants were real, “patients” who portrayed mental health issues were trained actors.

“It was important that actors portrayed patients in the series because we never wanted to be exploitive of patients or their conditions,” said Dr. Ungar. “We styled the show like reality television but didn’t use their nasty and shaming aspects. Think you can shrink? is fun and we had fun with the contestants, but never at their expense nor the expense of the ‘patients’ or conditions.”

Dr. Ungar said he was amazed at a few of the contestants.

   
Think you can shrink? addressed six mental health and communication issues.
  • Manic guy
  • Obsessive Compulsive Disorder
  • Prostate issues
  • Testicular lump
  • Anger management/narcissist
  • Suicidal depression

“One was just so Zen with the anger management actor. Another knew the condition he was working with and could almost put me out of business. But some contestants also demonstrated what not to do, which gave our judges opportunities to help educate the audience.”

The web series was supported by Movember Canada, through the North York General Hospital Foundation — the hospital where Dr. Ungar previously practiced.

Dr. Ungar said the show’s success was proof men’s health has room for edutainment—a combination of education and entertainment. In published research on the series, Dr. Ungar said the feedback from viewers was that the show was entertaining and after watching, would be more comfortable supporting a friend with similar health issues and would themselves be more likely to seek professional help if needed.

About St. Michael's Hospital

St. Michael’s Hospital provides compassionate care to all who enter its doors. The hospital also provides outstanding medical education to future health care professionals in more than 29 academic disciplines. Critical care and trauma, heart disease, neurosurgery, diabetes, cancer care, care of the homeless and global health are among the Hospital’s recognized areas of expertise. Through the Keenan Research Centre and the Li Ka Shing International Healthcare Education Centre, which make up the Li Ka Shing Knowledge Institute, research and education at St. Michael’s Hospital are recognized and make an impact around the world. Founded in 1892, the hospital is fully affiliated with the University of Toronto.