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TV Hates Therapy – Let’s Dig Deeper Shall We?

December 8, 2011

Since I’ve decided to do away with cable and only live my pop culture life using the interwebs, sometimes I get behind on tv. The other night I was watching Up All Night, the episode where Reagan’s parents pop by unexpectedly and Reagan completely freaks out at the thought of having to spend even one second with her mother.

Her mother Angie, it turns out, has written a book about mother-daughter relationships which is a slap in the face to Reagan, who doesn’t really think she was all-that-and-a-bag-of-chips as a mother, even if she does have a PhD in psychology. To add insult to said injury the UCLA Psychology Department is throwing her mother a party in honor of the wonderful book she’s written. If you haven’t seen the episode you should know that all of the other psychologists are fawning all over Angie talking about how her book has transformed the field.

They’re a bunch of dorks.

I like Up All Night a lot. It’s a great show with a fantastically cute couple with a stay at home dad and a working mom that talks out their problems in hilarious ways. I will not stop watching just because they portrayed my field in such a bad light.

But damn, am I getting sick of it.

The show Whitney (how is this show still on the air?) just had its own episode titled “Up All Night” that featured Chelsea Handler as a judgmental psychiatrist that makes fun of Whitney for having so many psychological issues, aka her “greatest hits,” and for being so thick she can’t figure out her own obvious hang-ups.  The Big Bang Theory (a show I love love love) also has a psychologist mother character who doesn’t actually know how to emotionally connect with her son, Leonard. Lisa Kudrow had a “comeback” with a web series titled Web Therapy in which she plays a therapist who conducts her sessions online. From what I understand (to be honest I could only stomach a few episodes) the patients are played by guest actors and it’s sort of done improv style. One of her first patients is her own ex-boyfriend and we learn that Kudrow’s character has some  issues of her own. It’s the typical stereotype of the therapist who has more issues than the people she’s supposedly helping.

From Frasier to Mad Men we see again and again the uselessness of therapy, and the social stigma of psychology and mental illness rears its ugly head. Since most people think that serious illnesses like depression and bipolar disorder aren’t “real” illnesses it makes sense that the people who treat those illnesses are portrayed as ridiculous and pointless. That may be why we see therapists as some combination of: emotionally rigid or emotional wrecks, judgmental, useless, idiotic, or too involved with their patients (Sopranos).

It’s gotten to the point that the question, “How does that make you feel?” is considered a joke, expressing our social discomfort with actually knowing when another person feels bad and our belief that those who do care aren’t actually asking anything worthwhile.

While I am not a therapist, I am a psychologist. This blows a lot of people’s minds. So let me explain. I am a research psychologist. In general, a person who studies psychology is interested in the mind. Not all psychologists are interested in human minds; some study animals. Of those who study humans, some study basic processes like: vision, emotions, language, etc. Others study how humans interact with one another to produce things like: social norms and values (this is me), competition, and cooperation. Some study what happens when something in the mind causes distress in the individual or those around them, such as emotional pain and mental disorders and illnesses. What therapists do is apply what we know about how the mind works to help people stop feeling emotional pain or to alleviate their mental disorder or illness. They are often compassionate people who dedicate their lives to helping others around them. Not all therapists are helpful (just like not all doctors, firefighters, or animal shelter volunteers are) but many do a lot to help a lot of people in real pain.

So while I am not a therapist, we all consider ourselves psychologists who concentrate on different aspects of the human experience. And I’m hoping one day that a show will come around that acknowledges the fantastic (and truly fascinating) work we all do.

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