February 7th, 2018
When a television producer first asked Jessica Griffin, PsyD, if she would consider taking an on-air consultant role on an upcoming reality show, she scoffed at the idea. An associate professor of Psychiatry and Pediatrics at UMass Medical School and executive director of UMASS Medical School’s Child Trauma Training Center with a private clinical practice in the Worcester area, Griffin did not see herself as the reality-show type.
Still, with some prodding from Hollywood and much discussion with colleagues, friends and family, Griffin decided to jump in. She first served as a consulting psychologist on the show, “Seven Year Switch,” which gave dissatisfied spouses a chance to “try out” another type of relationship and recently joined the docu-series “Married at First Sight,” for its sixth season, which was filmed in Boston and is showing now on Lifetime.
It’s a world apart from academia and clinical practice, Griffin soon learned. From the makeup and clothing to the 15-hour production days to being recognized in airport bathrooms, the demands of shooting a television show can be grueling.
Griffin recently spoke with NEP’s Catherine Robertson Souter about the experience and about her work with trauma and families in her “day job.”
You have been with UMass since 2006 in a variety of roles, doing research, teaching, training and more. Tell us about that.
Over the years I have worn many hats but the bulk of my work at the university is in training other professionals about the impact of trauma on children, on individuals, on families and on systems and to how to be more trauma responsive. Through my center, we train professionals including physicians, attorneys, judges, law enforcement, probation officers, teachers; in our first grant cycle we had trained over 14,000 people in trauma informed care and trauma responsive practices.
Another goal is to provide training to mental health providers in trauma focused cognitive behavioral therapy. I am one of the national trainers in trauma-focused CBT and up until a year ago was only the trainer in Massachusetts.
What is the program you started at the center called Linked Kids?
Of all the things that I do professionally, this is the one that I am most proud of even though we still have a long way to go.
Linked Kids grew out of my frustration with how long families and kids wait to access services. When we surveyed mental health agencies, kids were waiting an average of 6 to 12 months for their first therapy appointment and these were all traumatized children. We had 80 kids sitting on a waiting list at one agency and I knew that I had trained providers down the street with openings. So we created Linked Kids and it is now statewide. We track waitlists, check insurance, languages spoken, types of treatment. It is run by clinicians who take the calls and do a trauma screening with families.
You have also spoken at a judicial conference about vicarious traumatization, written about the dangers of children taking on parental responsibility at a young age and dealt with cases of divorce and custody battles. Would you say that your work mostly falls under the umbrella of trauma?
I think that trauma and resilience may be a better umbrella for all the work I do. Trauma has an impact and the majority of society has had a traumatic experience so how can we create a more resilient society. I am working on a training for the American Academy of Pediatrics now for a national curriculum and we are making the training resilience focused.
So, how did this all lead to being on a television show?
Never in my life did I think I’d be doing television. I met people at a conference in California who worked with a production company and asked if I would be interested in television. Over time they were very convincing so I decided to give it a shot.
What I have found most valuable about both of these shows, is that it is a totally different platform for being able to talk about things that an audience would not necessarily be thinking about or know about. We hear so many people say they try the skills we teach on the show. So the idea that we could have an impact on people in their own lives in a positive way makes me keep doing it.
There is certainly a sensational part of doing television that people can get caught up in but it’s been a wonderful experience to have this platform to reach people. I wear so many different hats from research to teaching to clinical work and this is just an expansion of both my clinical and teaching roles.
What was the response from family, friends and colleagues when you first decided to be a part of reality television?
This was the one area I had a little trepidation about, how people might respond because it is so out of my wheelhouse. Initially some people had reservations about putting myself out there on television and social media.
My colleagues have been very supportive. They also know me as a professional and that know I would not do something that would not be good for me, for my career, or representing my profession.
On the show, where couples meet each other on their wedding day, you help to decide who gets matched up with whom. How has your psychological training helped you in that area?
You don’t see this on the show, but the decision making was one of most exciting things I have done professionally. My role is as a psychologist on the show and so I have access to all of the psychological evaluations and use them to think about what we know about personality testing. It is fascinating.
There are interviews and background checks and psychological evaluations and then we narrow down the pool and we do multiple days of really intensive interviews. These are 15-hour days with very few breaks.
From a psychological point of view, is there research on who makes the best mates? Match-maker psychology could be a new niche.
In many cultures arranged marriages are the majority of marriages and divorce rates are lower. There are a number of different areas that apply. There is research on compatibility and attraction and the neuroscience behind it all. The field is growing.
How successful is the actual match making?
Overall, I think that there is something people get out of it at the end of the day even if they don’t have a marriage that lasts. While they are in the experiment, they have access to professionals teaching communication skills and different things they can apply to their marriage – and if that is not their forever marriage perhaps their next one.
What is it like going from a world of academia to “Hollywood?”
The worlds are completely different. I almost need a day or two for re-entry back into my real life with 3 kids and day job. I had to learn a lot about makeup and what looks good on television. I didn’t even own lip gloss when I first started doing television.
What do the kids think?
My kids are very young so they don’t watch the show. My son does not like when I come home in the makeup because I don’t normally look like that. He is used to my glasses and bun going to work, running to the bus stop late.
Have you been recognized out in public?
I have not experienced that yet. Part of it may be my life is pretty mundane driving to basketball and Girl Scouts in my free time. I anticipate that there may be more of that because “Married at First Sight” has a larger fan base and people recognize the other consultants. Pepper (Schwartz, PhD) gets stopped in bathroom at airports.
Friends do tell me I am going to have to step up my game and stop going out in sweatpants, though.
By Catherine Robertson Souter