When portraying mental illness and psychotherapy, the media tends to get it wrong — a lot — which has far-reaching results. Inaccurate depictions fuel stigma and may prevent people from seeking help.
“There are people out there who could benefit from therapy but don’t go because they think it’s just for ‘crazy’ people or think all therapists are nuts — because that’s what they see in the media,” said Ryan Howes, Ph.D, a psychologist, writer and professor in Pasadena, California.
When a tragic or violent act happens, the news media tends to exaggerate mental illness and depict it negatively, according to Jeffrey Sumber, MA, LCPC, a Chicago psychotherapist, author and teacher. “In circumstances such as a school shooting or the Giffords shooting, the person’s mental illness is portrayed as something dark and dangerous,” he noted.
Therapists don’t fare any better. “The mental health field is often portrayed as incompetent in these situations, as if a competent therapist has the ability to cure a personality or thought disorder or as if a therapist can tell the future and know which client will commit violent acts,” Sumber said. The reality is that many people reveal dark thoughts, dreams and fantasies in therapy. Doing so helps clients to heal and grow, Sumber said. If therapists reacted fearfully every time, it would squelch these opportunities.
Famous therapists like Dr. Phil and Dr. Drew also perpetuate the many misconceptions surrounding mental illness and how therapy actually works. For instance, they tend to make sweeping statements about everyone struggling with a specific mental illness, Sumber said. Dr. Phil also has created the expectation for quick fixes and short answers to complicated problems, he said.
Shows & Films That Got It Wrong
Most therapists are portrayed as having more problems than their patients, said Howes, who also writes the blog In Therapy. Therapists in shows like “Frasier,” Lisa Kudrow’s “Web Therapy” and “What About Bob?” are depicted as “highly neurotic, scatterbrained and self-congratulatory.”
Yes, therapists have their own issues, but often what we see are warped depictions. “Therapists are real people with as many quirks and hangups as everyone else, but these are distorted caricatures that don’t represent the profession as a whole,” he said.
Both Sumber and Howes also called out Betty Draper’s therapist on “Mad Men.” Without her knowledge, Draper’s therapist tells her husband everything they talk about in therapy.