Myth Busters: Therapy in the Media
Pop culture and media have historically portrayed counselling or psychotherapy in inaccurate ways. Therapists in movies and on TV are often portrayed as overly neurotic, judgmental, incompetent, and even aggressive. These quirky caricatures of bad therapists make for entertaining programming (after all, the medias job is entertainment, not education) but they are hardly encouraging to someone who might be considering seeing a therapist. Research has shown that media portrayals of therapists do, in fact, impact the public’s attitudes about seeking therapy. Inaccurate portrayals might lead the public to believe that unethical and even abusive practices are normal. If the majority of your knowledge of therapy comes from the big and small screen, you might benefit from some help separating fact from fiction.
So, what does the media tell us about therapy and how are we to know what is fact and what is fiction? Here are 3 myths about therapy that we learn from the media:
Myth 1: Therapists are bizarre academics who are impersonal, at best, and incompetent, at worst. The image of the Sigmund Freud-esque therapist, a stern and eccentric older man in a tweed jacket who tells you to lay on a leather couch and proceeds to explain what is ‘wrong’ with you, can be a difficult one to shake. It’s no wonder that so many people are nervous about going to therapy!
Take, for example, this clip from Mad TV:
Although the sketch is clearly meant to be humorous and not an accurate representation of a therapist, it is difficult to imagine what a real therapist might be like when we are not given accurate examples.
The truth: Therapists are normal, everyday people who happen to have an interest in human psychology and a drive for helping others. And they are highly educated. Generally, therapists have a master’s or doctorate degree in psychology or a related field and have been required to meet certain expectations to ensure their competence to practice. While “counsellor” is not a protected term in Canada (meaning anyone can call themselves counsellors), the terms “Registered Psychologist”, “Canadian Certified Counsellor” and “Registered Social Worker” are protected terms, meaning that those using these terms have met a standard of professional preparation and education and are accountable to a formal code of ethics. Education and training aside, therapists are everyday people who go through the same challenges, struggles, and triumphs as everyone else. The thing that sets them apart is their expertise in how to help others navigate through these challenges. Although the profession may attract those who know the territory of mental health struggles on a personal level, it is expected that therapists have worked through their own healing process and are able to effectively support others.
Myth 2: A therapist will have the answers to your problems and be able to solve them. The media sometimes has a habit of portraying therapists as super-human beings who seem to have the answers to everyone’s problems. And these answers are often delivered via lectures and advice giving (think the Dr. Phil show). To make matters worse, the advice dispensed by these TV therapists usually promotes a very specific set of values: those of the therapist. And if clients disagree, they are labeled as resistant or noncompliant.
The truth: A therapist will help you to find your own solutions. While in some ways it would be nice if someone could solve our problems for us, it is not realistic or helpful in the long term. This may, at first glance, seem discouraging. However, isn’t it more encouraging (and sustainable) to think that you have the ability to solve your own problems? Although therapists vary in their style and approach, most believe that clients are the experts in their own lives and that this expertise should be utilized in therapy to find solutions and create change. The expertise of the therapist comes in the form of guidance through the process of using this self-knowledge. As a client, you should feel that you have a sense of control over how the therapy process unfolds, rather than that you are a passive recipient of therapy. Aside from a few exceptional situations involving the therapist’s duty to protect those at risk, the solutions that you build with your therapist should resonate with your values and help you to build a more fulfilling life on your terms.
Myth 3: Your therapist will become highly involved in your life, possibly even in a romantic or sexual way. Therapy is based on a genuine bond between the therapist and client, and the media often portrays this bond as moving outside the walls of the therapist’s office to a friendship or romantic and/or sexual relationship. In the show How I Met Your Mother, for example, Robin dates her previous therapist.
The truth: Therapists are responsible for creating and maintaining appropriate boundaries that protect both of you. Although the therapist-turned-friend/lover storyline makes for interesting TV shows or movies, it has no place in real therapy. Therapists often work with vulnerable people and engaging in relationships with clients outside of therapy is viewed as an abuse of the power imbalance that inevitably exists in the relationship between therapist and client. Although therapist-client romantic relationships are sometimes portrayed as helpful or desirable in the media, there exists a significant risk of harm to the client. To protect clients, therapists must adhere to professional ethical guidelines that prohibit such relationships. The therapist holds the responsibility for maintaining appropriate boundaries within the therapeutic relationship and you should never feel that these boundaries are being crossed. It may be helpful to know that research has shown that the vast majority of therapists adhere strictly to their ethical codes.
The bottom line: Therapists in the media should be viewed as fictional, not factual, characters. Enjoy the entertainment that they provide, but be a discerning consumer. Remember that these depictions of therapy are dramatized and sensationalized. If you are interested in pursuing therapy but have concerns about how the process might proceed, share these concerns with your therapist. It is his or her job to hear your concerns and respond to them.
By Nicole Caines, R.Psych
Nicole Caines is a Registered Psychologist at Supporting Wellness Psychological and Family Services in Calgary, AB. She supports adolescents and adults struggling with anxiety, depression, trauma, grief, and life transitions. To schedule an appointment, go to www.supportingwellness.com