Mental illness has had a hard history, as has anything that was out of the ordinary for mankind. The famous philosopher-historian chronicled just how deeply prejudiced humans have been against behavior that doesn’t conform to the mainstream. In his master-work Madness and Civilization he described how throughout the ages, lepers and beggars, the differently-abled and even the criminally insane have all been painted with the same light: all that is incomprehensible thrown into a protozoan classification that terms them all equally mad.
Mental illness on film fared little better when it started gaining traction, but slowly and surely things were on their course. The Guardian published a detailed report about mental illness and how the trope is now improving in film and TV. The question that we must ask is this: has the portrayal of therapists on-screen improved as well?
While therapy has certainly found its limelight in film and TV given the recent popularity of mental illnesses, depression, etc., therapists have had an ambivalent course to follow. Surely there have been some iconic therapists and scenes involving therapy: such as the therapy scene from Good Will Hunting, the therapist in The Departed, and of course the hypnosis depicted in Get Out. Then there’s the obvious pick which is Dr. Hannibal Lecter, and even a group therapy scene involving Dr. Evil in Austin Powers. The wildly popular Haunting of Hill House had a lead character play a therapist. Therapists are being given far more screen time than before, from being in Sherlock to Parfum—but have film and TV got it right this time?
Therapists and Trust
A therapist builds his empire on pillars of concrete trust. Patient-therapist confidentiality cements the relationship and helps in recovery. The patient can be as open as they like because they know their secrets are safe.
Unfortunately on TV, therapists are shown in a slightly different light. From Showtime’s Dexter to Mad Men, therapists are shown to hold sinister agendas. They make recordings of their sessions and they spill their patient’s secrets to others (such as in Mad Men). In truth, we are ethically and legally bound to take your secret to the grave.
Therapists as Private Advisors
Film and TV love to portray the therapist as a person who becomes increasingly involved in the life of their client. They begin “hanging out” on a regular basis and there’s more than simple therapeutic rapport involved.
In reality though no therapist can give one patient the entirety of their time and cannot act as personal advisors. The therapist only shows you the way—you must walk through it yourself. In real life, the boundaries are very real.
Therapists as Lovers
Of course since this is film we’re talking about romantic attachment was only a shot away. It’s not even shocking that TV therapists and their patients are soon exchanging roses, rings, and vows. After all, the therapist was just a plot device, handy for expository requirements.
In truth there are definite boundaries between a therapist and a client, barring them from any kind of personal attachment. Personal and/or sexual relationships are in fact not conducive to the purpose of therapy, and rarely ever happen in real life. Yes, your therapist loves you but (only as a friend?) never romantically, and always only with the intent to help you.
Therapists as Super-Powered Mind-Reading Mega Villains
This trope really only goes back to Hannibal Lecter, the most prolific psychiatrist in film and TV history. Since him, many remakes and other inspirations (such as The Alienist) have tried emulating the super villain therapist trope. After all, most people think therapists come with a pre-installed crystal ball chip in their brains and can control others at whim. They also apparently like to manipulate, hypnotize, and indulge in barbaric criminal activities—and no one can catch them because they’re super-intelligent.
To tell the truth it’s rather flattering to be portrayed in an almost superhuman manner. Sadly the truth couldn’t be farther from fiction in this case. Therapists are people like you; just because we have professional degrees in psychology does not mean we can read your mind. We’re just here to help—and if one does turn out to be a cunning cannibalizing serial killer, they’re sure to be caught. Invincible villains only exist in TV.
Get out of Hollywood and find a real psychotherapist for yourself. Looking for counseling in NYC? Contact Dr. Charles Strozier today by calling at (212) 539-1842.