Frasier Crane and his brother, Niles both practiced psychiatry on their popular NBC sitcom “Frasier.” Mob boss Tony Soprano had his therapist on HBO’s hit show “The Sopranos.” And HBO has even made therapy the focus of two recent shows — “Tell Me You Love Me” and “In Treatment.”
The research suggests that television’s portrayal of psychological counseling has a profound influence on audiences. Douglas Gentile, one of the study’s authors, said,
Therapists … often are portrayed as buffoons. That’s either by being the jokester, like Frasier, or by being the butt of jokes. In either case, these are not positive portrayals. They do not show the skill, expertise and ethics of professional therapists.
The study was conducted by Gentile, David Vogel and Scott Kaplan of Iowa State University. It was published in the March issue of the Journal of Clinical Psychology.
Unflattering portrayals of mental health professionals
Kaplan has conducted a content analysis of television portrayals of mental health professionals. He found that they’re not favorable. Vogel said,
Generally, it seems like therapists are portrayed unethically — like sleeping with the client, or implanting false memories, or talking about their clients outside the session. These are things that almost never happen with real therapists, but on a show — because they’re probably more exciting — they happen more frequently.
Unflattering portrayals of psychological clients
But it’s not just the portrayal of the therapists that may be keeping people out of therapy. It’s also how those seeking counseling are shown. Vogel commented,
If you examine the portrayal of the clients, it’s probably as bad or worse. So why would you seek therapy if you believe you’re going to be perceived negatively and you’re going to see someone who’s incompetent and not able to help you?
Television’s ties to the stigma of therapy and treatment
The study found a correlation between viewers’ exposure to comedy and drama shows and their perceptions of the stigma associated with seeking professional help. This stigma was then related to lower willingness to seek professional mental health services. Vogel said,
One of the things that’s important to note about this particular study is that we showed that TV exposure was related to your perceptions of the stigma associated with seeking help, which has been found to be one of the main factors found from inhibiting people from seeking that help. So you perceive that yourself, and other people, would be crazy to go [to therapy].
That’s a real problem for most people who could benefit from professional mental health services.
The most recent studies in the mental health field have found that about half the population experiences a situation at some time in their lives where psychological therapy could be helpful. About 20 percent a year could benefit from counseling. But in a given year, only about 10 percent of people who could benefit will actually seek help. That’s only 6.1 million out of 61 million people!
Mental health services are already vastly underutilized, and this cultural stigma is part of the reason. And this study suggests that this cultural stigma exists partly because of the way that psychologists and their patients are portrayed on television.
What do you think?
I explored the stigma of mental illness in the articles Scapegoating and the Stigma of Mental Illness Part 1 and Part 2. In those articles I said that there is a real and vicious stigma against having a mental illness.
This study shows television also promotes a stigma against seeking mental health care and a stigma against mental health care professionals themselves.
- Are you swayed by television to see mental health care professionals as foolish or immoral?
- How do you regard those who seek counseling?
- What are your experiences with mental health care professionals? Does the television portrayal hold true?
As always, your comments are welcome!
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Resources used in this post:
Nauert, Rick. (2008, May 2). TV Portrayal of Therapists Hamper Support. Retrieved July 1, 2008 from Psych Central Web site: http://psychcentral.com/news/2008/05/02/tv-portrayal-of-therapists-hamper-support/2214.html
Vogel, David; Gentile, Douglas, Kaplin, Scott. (2008, April 21). ISU study finds TV portrayal of psychological therapy influences willingness to seek it. Retrieved July 25. 2008 from Iowa State University News Service Web site: http://www.public.iastate.edu/~nscentral/news/2008/apr/tvtherapy.shtml