If I Only Had a Brain: Media Portrayal of Mental Health Professionals


We’ve all seen them in movies and TV shows–the heady, overly critical, frumpy old therapists who look at their clients through thick spectacles and expound upon the psychological horrors that only they think plausible. They’re usually portrayed as incompetent, overly analytical, and generally out of touch with reality.

Characters such as Nurse Ratched in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest show a cold, remorseless approach to mental health, while others such as Sean Maguire in Goodwill Hunting display the belief that it’s expected for even good therapists to unload damaging counter transference onto their clients.  The list goes on: Dr. Thurman in Donnie Darko, Jack Nicholson in Anger Management, not to mention Anthony Hopkins’ incredibly creepy depiction of Hannibal Lecter.  The media is rampant with therapists who sleep with their clients, scream at their clients, betray their clients’ trust, even physically attack their clients.  And most of all, therapists in the media seem to have an uncanny knack for wrongly diagnosing clients, and consequently cause them countless miseries.


Perhaps this provides people with comfortable distance from which to identify with the social fear this country seems to have of mental healthcare, but I find it rather troubling.  On the infrequent occasions that I do encounter a positive (or even accurate) depiction of a therapist in a film (such as in Lars and the Real Girl), I am reminded of how rare this sort of occurrence actually is.

So why does American media seem to hate mental health so much?

Well, to be honest, there are some good reasons for Psychology’s bad reputation.  I still find myself griping about Freud’s emphasis on sex, and shake my head at the gross ethical violations of the Milgram Experiment and the Stanford Prison Experiment.  The field’s history is rife with unethical studies, instances of misinterpreting data to promote prejudiced views, and overall, there’s been a lot of misinformation.

Now, this is true for every field, but nobody seems to blame scientists for once believing that the earth was the center of the universe.  There are probably a couple of reasons for this.  First of all, people care less about the effects of research on the lives of mice than their own.  But furthermore, science is all about figuring out new and better ways to understand the world and accomplish things, which the United States is all about. Psychology, until recently, basically focused on figuring out what makes the mind break.  Strengths-based approaches are fairly new, and still haven’t really caught on in the popular view.


I guess that means we have our work cut out for us.  On the other hand, we’re also at the very forefront of a new wave of psychology.  We’re the ones who get to show people that counselling isn’t mad science, and that the therapist’s office isn’t (necessarily) a petri  dish.

What do you think?  What will it take to shift the public attitude towards mental health into the realm of the healthy, instead of the horrifying?


1 Comment (+add yours?)

  1. Martha
    Feb 24, 2013 @ 17:12:42

    Great post, Mari. This is something I’ve thought about over the years. Some good depictions of therapists in the media are in the movies “The Snake Pit” (very old and freudian) and “Sybil” (the version with Sally Field and Joanne Woodward). I also like a show called “Couple’s Therapy” on MTV; though meant to be somewhat sensational because the couples are all celebrities in some way, the therapist is fantastic.
    I think people are afraid of “psychotherapy” because of the historical memory people carry of how mental illness was treated in the past (including mental retardation at any degree). Mental illness was often “treated” by locking people in the attic, for instance, so even in a later time when mental illness was approached “medically” and included “therapy”, the mention of someone having a mental illness was a huge stigma. Perhaps the stigma was worse in a family that had mental illness to any degree in its history. For instance, it was suggested to my father that my brother had some emotional problems (at 13) that might be helped by psychotherapy. My father went on a defensive tirade about how nothing was wrong with his son, which unfortunately led to my brother not knowing about his bipolar disorder until he was well into adulthood. And I agree that TV shows that make people laugh at the clients and therapists, like the Bob Newhart Show and others, doesn’t help.
    I think that what will change the image and acceptance of psychotherapy will be when something expansive and dramatic is is shown to improve significantly by sessions of psychotherapy with good therapists. Maybe the development of something like a truly effective approach for PTSD, or postpardum depression, I don’t know, but something, that everyone will start noticing for the positive effect of the therapeutic relationship. Not sure, but I’m hopeful.
    I also think it will make a difference when we can separate psychotherapy from the clutches of health insurers, and the whole process of therapy will be seen less as a medical need and more as a need positive ongoing human development.
    Oh, oh, I’m on a rant – I guess I should get back to my homework!


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