Therapy in Television and Movies
The first time I remember seeing “therapy” on TV was on the Bob Newhart show. Bob, who played a psychologist, was the perfect straight man to the comedic antics of his patients and even his receptionist. Complete with laugh track, this show made me believe that most problems could be cured in a half an hour. And if they weren’t cured we could at least laugh about them.
Strangely enough, the show did, in no way resemble the times I waited for my mother in mental hospital waiting rooms until she had finished talking with her psychiatrist. There was no wise cracking receptionist or quirky patients ready to quip one-liners sitting in the chairs beside me. Mostly I witnessed the drawn and sunken faces of depression or the relentless pacing and chain smoking of the seriously mentally ill. If there was a joke to be told here, I wasn’t in on it. Yet as a child I did not mind this discrepancy between reality and what I saw on television. As a matter of fact, I welcomed it. It gave me relief to think that in some alternate universe therapy was fun or even funny.
By the time I was an adolescent I was seeking my own therapy. I was suffering from depression and it was becoming so bad that I was self harming through cutting. During this same time period the movie, Ordinary People came out starring a young Timothy Hutton who played a suicidal teen named Conrad and Judd Hirsch played Doctor Berger, his therapist. The basic story line of the movie is that Conrad and his parents are all trying to cope in very different ways with the death of Conrad’s older brother. Conrad feels guilty for his brother’s death and attempts suicide. Although the family appears functional to everyone from the outside, it is imploding from within. One of the taglines for the movie could be a descriptor for so many people’s lives: Everything is in its proper place…Except the past.
This film was magnificent for a number of reasons, one of which, for me was that the therapy sessions portrayed, seemed so real. Here is a therapy scene from Ordinary People courtesy of the Internet Movie Data Base so you can see what I mean firsthand:
Conrad "Con" Jarrett: I'm so scared! I'm scared.
Dr. Berger: Feelings are scary. And sometimes they're painful. And if you can't feel pain... you won't feel anything else either. You know what I'm saying?
Conrad "Con" Jarrett: I think so.
Dr. Berger: You're here. You're alive. Don't say you don't feel that.
Conrad "Con" Jarrett: It doesn't feel good.
Dr. Berger: It is good. Believe me.
Conrad "Con" Jarrett: How do you know?
Dr. Berger: Because I'm your friend.
Watching this movie was cathartic for me back then and it still is today. When I was a teen I wished for a therapist like Doctor Berger. The reality was that I had no money or insurance so I visited our local community center and saw a graduate student in training for five bucks a session. She was no Doctor Berger but she did try. I was grateful for any help.
Then in my twenties I did find my own version of the quality of therapist portrayed by Judd Hirsch in the movie. Yet unlike the movies, my therapy took years and not months. And the great breakthrough moments where I could feel…anything...took place only after over a year of intense therapy. It was much harder work than the movies can ever portray in the scope of two hours. I think the great misconception is that you plop down in therapy like a lump of clay and the therapist magically does things to mold and fix you. It doesn’t happen that way. It is very hard and painful work.
One of the other lines from Ordinary People which rings so true is when Doctor Berger explains to Conrad: “A little advice about feelings kiddo; don't expect it always to tickle.” In order to feel better you may have to go through feeling worse. This is a risk that some patients will not wish to take in the course of therapy.
In my late thirties I had returned to seeking therapy sporadically. Perhaps because I had such a wonderful therapist in my young adult years, it was hard to settle for less. I struggled with developing a gage of whether or not a particular therapist or therapy was good for me. In some cases I allowed up to nine months before making that decision that things were not working out.
Maybe I was also moving away from idealizing therapy and I began to see that therapists are very human. They all have their own issues and psychological frailties. In a way my therapists’ blunders made me appreciate the strength of my resilience and self preserving capabilities. The context of therapy in these later years helped me discover that I was never as unhealthy or as “sick” as I thought I was. I was also able to take my idealized version of a therapist off the pedestal. I had come to the conclusion that therapists are not some all powerful beings who necessarily have all their sh** together. Just because they sit in the special chair doesn’t mean they are any less vulnerable to life’s difficulties than we are.
One television show which fully illustrates my personal findings is the HBO series called In Treatment If you have never seen In Treatment you can rent it from Netflix or buy it on-line or in some bookstores. It is on my list of best television shows for its realistic portrayal of the therapeutic process. The show follows psychoanalyst Paul Weston (played by Gabriel Byrne) through a week of psychotherapy sessions with individual patients. We also get to see what we never get to view in real life, the therapist’s own struggles with life issues as well as personal sessions with their own therapist. Many psychotherapists are in treatment themselves as part of the process.
The disparity between Paul’s role as a therapist and as a patient, is quite startling yet validating. It goes back to my point that we are all human and that despite the ideal, your therapist may be as “messed up” as you are, perhaps even more. The key is finding a therapist who uses a proper balance of empathy and understanding of the human condition but also maintains your confidence that their personal issues do not interfere with your therapy. As we see in this show, it is a very hard balance to maintain for the therapist.
Sometimes it is hard to tell if real life mimics the movies and TV or if it is the other way around. If the film portrayal of therapy is a good one, we get a glimpse into the terrain of familiar feelings and responses. In some cases the movie or TV show will move us beyond catharsis and into developing a greater insight into the therapeutic process as a whole. We begin to understand what it is like for both the patient and the doctor.
Now we want to hear from you. Are there any TV shows or movies which you would recommend watching for their realistic portrayal of therapy or mental health issues? Are there any films which are out of touch with reality as far as depicting therapy? Tell us your thoughts. We are very interested in what you have to share.