Counseling and the media: Going on?

Yay, group therapy stock photo time!

Have you seen the commercials for NBC’s new show, Go On?

I caught glimpses of the ads this week and thought, “What the H?! This is NOT GOOD.”

So in the name of research, I braved the pilot episode. And kind of…tolerated it? For sure, there are some big problems with it. Namely, the show plays into many of the stereotypes surrounding therapists and group therapy. The group leader is kind of dippy, smiley, and neurotic in her own way. She uses her group members’ names way too often. She sets up a gong and candles in the middle of the circle. She quotes Kubler-Ross, drops stereotypical buzzwords like “safe space,” and encourages her group members to give themselves hugs. Despite the extreme diversity of the group, all of the members seem a little “off” and thus not directly relatable. And the biggest problem of all: The group leader is exactly that–a group leader only, not any kind of trained and licensed mental health professional.

As much as I wanted to hate it, the show has some heart. For one thing, the main character’s boss recommends that he attend therapy before returning to work. This is quite a departure from the longstanding American “Pick yourself up by your bootstraps and you’ll be fine!” mentality. Not that long ago, that boss would have said just that to Matthew Perry’s character. I also appreciate the diversity in the show, even if it’s a little artificial. Props to NBC for including a woman involved in a same-sex relationship and not making a big deal of it by choosing to treat it just like the other group members’ relationships. More importantly, kudos for a sensitive and only slightly goofy montage depicting each of the group members dealing with grief in their own way. I appreciated that diversity in thinking and feeling, since there is no “right” way to grieve.

My outline for this blog post started out pretty vitriolic. The media is not particularly known for its realistic portrayals of…anyone. It has done and continues to do the mental health field a disservice by playing into a vast number of stereotypes surrounding therapy and therapists. Therapy is portrayed as goofy, touchy-feely, dangerous, overanalytical, strange, creepy, you name it. Therapists are portrayed as neurotic (Frasier Crane from Frasier), untrustworthy (Betty Draper’s psychiatrist in season 1 of Mad Men), or even extremely perceptive and downright deadly (Hannibal Lecter from The Silence of the Lambs). Although these are just some examples I can think of now, they abound. But have you ever seen or read about therapy as a place for self-exploration and growth, or seen or read about a happy, balanced therapist who facilitates self-exploration and growth?

I know that I’ve had to battle my own preconceived notions about counselors and counseling when I entered my program and was determined not to be one of “those” counselors. I realized that my perceptions stemmed from both legitimate personal experience and from years of messages broadcast by the media. Even as someone who is fairly media literate, I still struggle with these stereotypes as I figure out my identity as a counselor.

I’m not sure where Go On will lead–Matthew Perry was getting a little flirty with his group leader and since client-therapist relationships are a huge ethical breach and nothing to encourage, I sure hope the show doesn’t go there. (Even with a non-licensed group leader.) In 2009, the New York Times noted that therapist-type characters were becoming harder to find in TV and movies. Since the portrayals generally aren’t positive, it’s probably a good thing. I hope that Go On–like its group member characters–continues to grow, paving the way for more positive portrayals of therapy and therapists. (I also hope the group leader decides to get her degree and license!) Since many pilots fail, I’m not going to hold my breath, but if Go On catches on and deals with the subjects responsibly, the show might be one more force in overcoming the stigma of therapy and getting people the help they need.

Do you have any positive or negative  examples of therapy or therapists? (No, really. I don’t watch much in the way of TV or movies.) Your thoughts on how the portrayal of how the mental health field has changed over time–if at all?

Resources:

New York Times, “On the Screen, the Shrink has Shrunk.”

Photo.

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