Saturday, 24 November 2012

Shrinks in the media - more harm than good?

Hi everyone and belated Thanksgiving to our US amigos!

This month I have been enjoying watching my DVDs of the fabulous HBO series In Treatment. For those who don't know, In Treatment, is a drama series centring around the work of Dr Paul Weston (played by Gabriel Bryne), a psychotherapist in New York (here's a great little trailer I found on You Tube about the show, In Treatment). It got me thinking about how psychotherapists are portrayed in film and TV.

The fabulous In Treatment
There are numerous real life therapists who have voiced great concerns about how therapists portrayed in the media seem to breach ethical boundaries with alarming regularity.  For example therapists in film and TV  often have multiple relationships with their clients (at worst romantic ones), talk about cases with their own family members, and provide treatment outside their range of expertise.

Good Will Hunting
(the key park bench moment (post fight))
There is a specially formed group in the States called the Media Watch Committee to provide therapists with a platform for their concerns on this matter.  

One the examples the panel uses to demonstrate their concern is the character played by Robin Williams in the film Good Will Hunting, where the therapist makes great inroads with his client but crosses ethical boundaries in the process (anyone remember their first session where Robin Williams ends up grabbing Matt Damon by the throat)!

Shrink Rap
Even in more 'close to real life' therapy, one can see boundaries being challenged if not broken. For example, psychologist Pamela Stephenson interviewed her own husband, comedian Billy Connolly, for her show called Shrink Rap on Channel 4. (Here's a link to some of the episodes from the series Shrink Rap). Or the straight talking technique adopted by Oprah's Dr Phil is certainly way too directive for any serious therapy to take place.

To further demonstrate the gap between therapists on the screen and those in real life, classifications of shrinks in the media have been developed, for example:

Dr Dippy AKA Frasier
'Dr. Dippy,' who is crazier or zanier than his patients (e.g. TV’s Frasier Crane).
'Dr. Evil,' usually a corrupt mind-controller or homicidal maniac like Hannibal Lecter in 'Silence of the Lambs.'
'Dr. Wonderful,' the warm, caring, competent therapist who has endless time to devote to patients and often cures them by uncovering a single traumatic event.
'Dr. Rigid,' who stifles joy, fun and creativity. The spoilsport psychologist who tries to have Santa Claus committed as a lunatic in 'Miracle on 34th Street' is an illustration of this stereotype.
'Dr. Line-Crosser,' who becomes romantically involved with a patient.

Given the classifications above, it's not surprising that studies have shown that overall media portrayals of therapists create a negative impact upon the public. 

In one study (by Iowa State in 2008), the more comedy and drama programs watched containing characters of therapists, the more negative the attitudes. The study participants expected little benefit from consulting a therapist, and were less likely to seek mental health services.

Studies have also shown that the crossing of boundaries by therapists in film and TV has contributed towards a misunderstanding by the public that these kinds of behaviours are acceptable in real life therapeutic relationships.

Personally I feel that it's great that therapy is playing a more key role in the media but a balance needs to be struck between entertainment and education, the same as much can be said for other professions which rely on strict ethical guidelines such as lawyers and doctors. I would like to see more realistic versions of therapy in film and TV which could help narrow the public's expectation gap and hopefully help alleviate the stigma which still exists surrounding therapy.

Something to ponder next time you see a therapist on film or TV!

Take care

Lots of love