How Movies & TV Affect the Stigma of Therapy

Celebrities and other public figures are talking more openly about their mental health these days—which is helping to dispel the idea that mental illness equals crazy. It’s certainly a step toward normalizing mental illness, but it’s not the whole picture.

With mental illness comes (ideally) mental health treatment—via counselors, therapists, psychologists, nurses, and psychiatrists. The issue, unfortunately, is that only a small percentage of those with mental illnesses actually turn to these services for help. One study found as few as 11 percent of those who need help actually seek it. People might be afraid of being judged, unwilling to admit they have have a problem, or unable to afford therapy.

People are afraid of being judged, won’t admit they have a problem, or can’t afford therapy.

And on top of these recognized concerns comes one less documented one: how the media portrays therapy and mental health professionals. Long-running medical dramas like ER and Grey’s Anatomy have, inarguably, influenced the way we perceive real-world physicians—for better or worse. Previous research on medical doctors in the media backs up this idea; however, mental health professionals have not, historically, been given the same examination.

The fictional mental health professionals we’re exposed to are, so often, out of touch with reality (Dr. Tobias Fünke, Arrested Development), filled with rage (Dr. Leo Marvin, What About Bob?), selfish and egotistical (Dr. Marilyn Kessler, Difficult People), or just plain evil (Dr. Hannibal Lecter, The Silence of the Lambs). And while these portrayals are certainly to be taken with a grain of salt, they’re potentially damaging to those who might need help.

People aside, think about how mental health institutions, themselves, are portrayed. In movies and TV, an institution might be called a “nuthouse” or a “looney bin.” Patients are “locked up” to be punished for their crazy. These places are supposed to promote healing and coping—to help people live their best lives with the right strategies and support—but they don’t always look that way.

These places are supposed to promote healing and coping—to help people live their best lives with the right strategies and support—but they don’t always look that way.

A 2014 study called “Media influences on self-stigma of seeking psychological services: The importance of media portrayals and person perception.” helped to start this conversation by looking at the relationship between mental health in the media and self-stigma. Self-stigma is defined as “the perception held by the individual that he or she is socially unacceptable.”

The study’s results “supported that the portrayals of psychologists, those who seek therapy, and persons with a mental illness in the media influenced corresponding real-life perceptions.” In other words, fictional mental health professionals definitely have an effect on how we view mental illness in ourselves and how likely we are to seek professional help.

Results showed a correlation between exposure to inadequate psychiatric treatment and the belief that you can’t get better or become a functioning member of society. Think about it this way: You suspect you have OCD. You know therapy is an option, but you’ve never met a real-life therapist—you’ve only seen unprofessional, unhelpful ones in popular media. You assume visiting one would be, at best, a waste of time or, at worst, a harm to your health. You get even more discouraged because, not only are you struggling with your mental health, but the media has given you the wrong idea that you can’t get better or live a normal life.  

Obviously, there’s a problem here—one that needs more exploration and attention. It’s easy to say we should just introduce more helpful mental health professionals into our movies and shows. That’d be great, but it’s never going to happen. It’s these characters’ flaws—their self-centeredness, their homicidal tendencies, or their quirks—that make them so entertaining to watch.

So, what’s a realistic plan of attack then?

Brittany Camara, Licensed Mental Health Clinician  (LMHC) and a Certified School Adjustment Counselor (CSAC) is fighting to challenge the perception that therapy is only for “crazy” people or that there’s no point in it.

Camara, who works as a high school social worker, finds that students don’t think therapy is “for them.” More often than not, she says, “[students] will often put down the profession without even realizing it.” They tell her things like, I don’t need to go see anyone or I don’t want some crazy person telling me what I should be like.

“I had a high school girl start actually yelling about the idea that ‘they might diagnosis me crazy’,” says Camara. “She’s not crazy. What does ‘crazy’ even mean?” It’s interactions like these that fuel her desire to change the stigma. “I remind them that they are talking to me,” she says, of her informal meetings with students. “I’m a therapist and this is what therapy is!”

“Students have been more open minded after they realize what they have been doing while meeting with me is actually therapy. It normalizes it. But until they experience it firsthand? They have no idea.” The same could probably be said for most of us. While we grow up visiting the doctor or the dentist regularly, therapy isn’t so routine. Most of us only learn what therapy is through the movies and shows we watch.

Camara notes, in the Netflix series 13  Reasons Why, the school counselor isn’t seen as a positive role model. We only get to see one side of this character—the side that wasn’t able to help a suicidal teenager before she took her life. “What are students and adults to think about the reality of it?” says Camara.

As far as what we can do to change this perception, Camara says, “we need to start portraying therapy as normal as willing to help ourselves. It’s not right for everyone—some people work on themselves daily regardless—and they heal and grow in that manner.” But for those who could benefit from it, she says the best way to “sell” therapy us to normalize it.

“We need to start portraying therapy as normal.”

“I think the biggest point I try to get across to kids is to be open to feeling better,” says Camara. When you think of therapy as a path feeling better and living better—rather than a punishment or chore—it can really help change the way you think of mental health as a whole. “The first step is to be open-minded,” says Camara.


Kaitlin Willow

Kaitlin is Founder and Editor in Chief of The Vim. She works for Dermstore during the day and writes novels and short stories in the evenings. She lives in Long Beach, California with the coolest dog in the world, Benny. (Find him on Instagram: @bennythejetsetter)


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