Dr. Ali Mattu: The psychologist making mental health accessible on YouTube

Dr. Ali Mattu is the host of "The Psych Show."

Dr. Ali Mattu

Dr. Ali Mattu has a Ph.D. in clinical psychology and is the host of The Pysch Show. He spent the last decade in New York City, where he specialized in treating anxiety, obsessive-compulsive disorder, and body-focused repetitive behaviors like hair-pulling, skin-picking, and nail-biting.

Now, he’s relocated to his hometown in Northern California and is focusing on creating mental health videos that “give away everything I know to everyone for free.” His aim is to inject authoritative, helpful mental health advice into a space that’s all too often rife with harmful misinformation.

In the following interview, Mattu talks about the inspiration behind The Psych Show, what he hates about mental health, and how he got over his bee phobia.

A version of this article also appears in the Sunday Scaries newsletter. Sign up for free to receive it on Sundays. This interview has been edited and condensed.

How would you describe The Psych Show?

The Psych Show is a YouTube channel dedicated to making psychology and mental health fun and easy to understand. Our community is called “the Mighty Psyche.” We lift each other up, share what we know, and celebrate mental health together. I make mental health tutorials, reactions to pop culture, reviews, share behind-the-scenes stories from the world of therapy, and give career advice for those who want to get into mental healthcare.

What inspired you to create it?

Back in November of 2014, one of my patients showed me a YouTube video about bad habits. The video was going viral and my patient wanted to know if its advice was worth listening to. I was shocked to see how inaccurate the video was and how successful it had become. It was 20 minutes of a teenager mostly sharing discredited psychological myths watched thousands of times.

I wanted to give my patient something better to watch but struggled to find a video that featured a reputable mental health professional, shared accurate information, and would resonate with young adults my patient’s age.

Currently "The Psych Show" has 60.7K subscribers.

I learned so much in that moment. Up until then, I only went to YouTube to watch movie trailers. I had no idea it was home to so much user-generated content. I was also clueless about how important YouTube was to education and realized people in my field weren’t making the type of videos that would connect with the YouTube audience. Most of the stuff that was up there by other therapists were long lectures that even I wouldn’t watch.

That’s when I decided to create The Psych Show. I was determined to make videos that would not only resonate with my patients but would outperform false, misleading, and potentially harmful videos. I think I’ve done a good job with the former … [I’m] unsure about the latter. I’m limited by what has been shown through scientific research. My competitors are not.

Why did you decide to share your work on free social media platforms?

I was a selectively mute kid. While that sounds like a superpower from X-Men, it’s actually an anxiety disorder where you don’t speak in certain situations. For me that meant I was mute whenever I wasn’t at home. My selective mutism evolved into social anxiety and some depression got tossed in during middle school. I didn’t realize I had these issues until way later in my life. Actually, the first time I heard of selective mutism is when I started treating selective mutism as a Ph.D. student.

I was lucky to have a great high school teacher who picked up on my anxiety and helped me through it. But a lot of kids slip through the cracks, particularly anxious kids.

I hate that about mental health — how it’s often this mysterious thing that goes unnoticed, that people don’t know how to help someone who is struggling, and we don’t talk about these issues openly in society. Some progress has been made over the last 10 years, but we’ve still got a long way to go. Having worked in mental healthcare for awhile now, I also hate how hard it is to access good quality treatment and to navigate the mental healthcare system.

The reason why I picked YouTube is because it seems like one of the best ways to address this problem. It’s a scalable platform that can reach almost everyone in the world — with the exception of government censorship and bandwidth limitations. Because it’s video, it’s a more personal platform that doesn’t require as high literacy as text. And because it’s ad-supported, I can give away content for free, and if the content is good, it’ll generate some revenue for me.

Same with social media — I try to take the best parts of my videos, edit them down to one-minute chunks and share those on social media. I’m trying to give away the best of what I’ve learned to people where they’re at, instead of asking them to come to me.

Do you personally have a favorite video that you’ve made? Why does this one strike you in particular?

This is such a difficult question to answer! I am never 100 percent satisfied with any of my videos. I’ve taught myself everything about video production [from watching other YouTube videos], and since I’m making these videos by myself, something often gets messed up in the final cut. Maybe the sound wasn’t as good as I wanted, or the camera lost focus in a key moment. I didn’t quite phrase something the way I wanted. When I look back I see a lot of those flaws, but I’ve learned that a big part of being a YouTuber is facing your own perfectionism and publishing a video that’s good enough.

Anyway, that’s why I tend not to think of any of my videos as a “favorite”. That being said, there is one video that I think has done the most good in the world. It’s a video I made about facing my own bee phobia.

Mattu works on his bee phobia.

I had done a lot of early stages of bee phobia treatment on myself, but then I got stuck on the last phase — interacting with real bees. I called up apiaries (where people keep bees) in New York and explained that I’m an anxiety disorder specialist who is making a video for YouTube about facing my own bee phobia and asked if they’d be okay with me coming to their site. Everyone turned me down. I guess it does sound a little strange in retrospect.

One day after brunch in Brooklyn, my wife and I saw a bunch of bees near a bush. I instinctively ran across the street, which is what I always did when I saw bees. But then I realized this was my opportunity to face my fears. So I gave my iPhone to my wife, told her to hit record, and she filmed me completing my exposure therapy on myself.

I love how honest the video is, both in showing what I’m going through and also in what exposure therapy is like. A lot of folks have told me they went to get exposure treatment because they watched that video. I also know a lot of anxiety experts use this video to teach their students how to do this treatment. When I go to anxiety conferences, people sometimes refer to me as “the guy from the bee video.” All of that makes me happy because it gets back to my original mission with The Psych Show.

Years later, my bee phobia is gone. I’ve got a young daughter now. A few months ago, a bee was flying around her. Automatically, I started swatting it away instead of running away myself. That made me feel really good — that I could be there for my daughter instead of running away from the problem. Though you could argue I didn’t need to swat the bee away at all — but that’s more of an academic debate about bees, anxiety, and avoidance.

I personally really liked your video on “how to make a difficult decision.” Can you please expand on what value clarification is and how it can help?

Thanks! That video is all about my personal struggle with the decision to leave New York for California. I never set out to tell personal stories on YouTube. But then I quickly learned that because I can’t tell any stories about my patients, the only other way I can make things relatable is to share my own experience with my mental health.

Values are a big part of some of the newer cognitive and behavioral therapies. Specifically, Acceptance and Commitment Therapy and Dialectical Behavior Therapy.

The idea is we want to help you live a life that’s consistent with your values. Some values can be obvious, like family if you have kids or growth if you’re a college student. But values can change with time. To better understand your values, a therapist might have you imagine your 100th birthday. They might ask you: Who is there? What are your relationships like with these people? What stories are they sharing about your life? This can help us begin to understand what values are important to you right now.

Then we might do a values card sort, which is when you go through a list of values and sort them into piles based on what is important and not important to you. Usually that gets us down to a list of three to five values. Once we have a short list, we use these values to help you make changes in your life that shift things towards your values.

Clarifying values can be really helpful when you’re struggling with a decision. They bring an emotional charge to pro/con lists. My wife and I did a values card sort when we were debating whether to stay in New York or move to California. Once we clarified our values, we realized they had changed over the past few years and moving to California was the right move for us.

What advice do you have for people who want to start investing in their mental health but are intimidated by beginning that journey?

I’m a big fan of doing small things that have a big positive impact on mental health.

Take sleep for example. It’s hard to get more sleep but small things can improve the quality of sleep: getting blackout curtains, buying a white noise machine, putting your phone far away from your bed, stuff like that. When you improve your sleep everything gets better the next day — your attention, ability to deal with tough emotions, ability to form new memories and recall old ones, and your interactions with other people.

Across all aspects of mental illness, researchers are finding that social support is one of the best ways to improve mental health. Social support can mean being with someone you’re close to and talking to them about what’s going on in your life. Or it can mean being together and playing video games together. One of the best ways to invest in your mental health is to just be with the people you care about and do the things that make you feel supported by them. An easy win here is to make it a regular thing: Once a month you’re going to meet up for coffee and catch up in the way you want to.

The other little thing that has a big impact is to do something active. I don’t mean exercise. Exercise is great, but just getting out of bed, getting dressed, going out of the door, getting some fresh air, and interacting with other people is a huge win for your mental health. Sunlight wakes you up. The act of moving is a great way to undo the effects of depression, and it makes you more likely to do more of the stuff you want to do during the day.

You don’t have to have a fancy self-care regimen. Focus on your sleep, being with people you care about and who care about you, and getting out of bed and out the door on a regular basis.

What’s next for you — what are your goals for the upcoming year?

2020 is the year I’m going full-time on content creation. That means weekly episodes on The Psych Show. I’m also doing regular live hangouts to better connect with the community. I’m also working on a book that I hope to share more about in the near future. It’s a memoir meets self-help story I wish I had my hands on when I was younger. I’ve got a few other things in the works that I can’t talk about right now but will give people a more polished and easy-to-reference version of my YouTube content.