The Decline of the On-Screen Therapist

A recent exploration in The New York Times covers the standing of the on-screen psychotherapist, a classic role that seems to have been deteriorating for quite a while, despite a surge of interest in and use of therapeutic services. From illustrious beginnings depicting therapists as highly educated and insightful characters to modern representations that seem to delight in tearing down the credibility of the therapist, roles on television and in films have become less interested in the basics of psychotherapy, and far more focused on complex and often antagonistic characters that are somehow connected with the mental health professions.

As its case in point, the Times article points to Dr. Hannibal Lecter, the infamous flesh-eating villain from the popular film series initiated by The Silence of the Lambs. Following the popularity of this character, who combines sometimes Freudian insights with a brutal and extremely violent “dark side,” creative media outlets have fashioned many other therapists who probably wouldn’t meet modern professional standards. Citing an upcoming movie in which actor Kevin Spacey portrays a drug- and alcohol-abusing therapist providing off-beat care to his clients, the article questions whether the decline of the on-screen therapist is a result of the need to deconstruct a profession often aimed at deconstructing its clients, or a simple and natural evolution of an archetype.

Though the article may prove true in describing the direction of mental health professionals on television and the silver screen, growing acceptance of psychotherapy and an increase in the number of people actively seeking treatment and exploring options for a deeper investigation of the self suggest that the phenomenon is strictly limited to what goes on in front of the camera.

© Copyright 2009 by By John Smith. All Rights Reserved. Permission to publish granted to

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  • Dr.Tim

    July 27th, 2009 at 8:51 AM

    It’s always bothered me to see how therapists are portrayed in popular media, typically focusing on the therapist’s flaws and neurosis. It only serves to give therapists a bad wrap and to discourage people who might benefit from therapy from ever making the call. Don’t you agree?

  • Kate

    July 27th, 2009 at 10:56 AM

    Oh no! Does that mean that my Dr Phil show is over? Where ever wil I get my advice from now? :-)

  • Dylan

    July 28th, 2009 at 3:24 AM

    I think most of my friends in med school dont want to take psychiatry as an option. This is possibly because of the prejudice that exists about stereotyping all psychiatrists as an offshoot of hannibal lester or of a different kind of madness.

  • Maggie

    July 28th, 2009 at 5:59 AM

    There have been numerous times throughout my career that I too have been very disappointed with the ways in which therapists have been portrayed onscreen. Most people are wary of beginning therapy at all, and when they see these common misconceptions about therapy brought to life on both the small and the big screen that only adds to their concern about seeking professional treatment. Most good therapists are in that profession to help, not hinder anyone, and it certainly is not about the money! We do what we do because we care, and that is the bottom line that needs to be addressed.

  • Ronald

    August 4th, 2009 at 3:44 AM

    Being a therapist I believe is quite similar to being a priest. It is not easy and it can be very difficult personally but it is one of the most satisfying careers to choose. Doing it for the money may not be of much relevance in today’s scenario.

  • Gary

    June 18th, 2010 at 10:05 AM


    I don’t think that being a therapist is anything like being a priest and should not be. We are simply not that smart or dedicated. That kind of thinking is often what confuses the public and gets displayed in television and movies. Our role diffusion comes off as flakey and weird. Actually, much of it is. Simply put, We just don’t know what we are and if we can’t control our own ethical practice boundary definitions (by being consitent in our practices and limiting our services to what we are licensed to do) the public will do it for us.

    The whole concept of helping others with emotional and mental problems has been highly diffused with an abundant amount of resources and providers. The public can get a great deal of very good help without a “tour guide” called a therapist. The lack of consistency in our treatment approaches drives people to what they onsider are more reliable and often free sources of help. The public does not want to be exposed to crazy, weird, unorthodox, or just plain hocus-pocus non-scientific “care”. I know we are trying to make a buck here – but expanding our practice boundaries into odd or culturally popular areas is not the answer to our identity crisis. that lack of identity is the opening Hollywood exploits in the media. They, not us, are crafting our public image. Is that what we want?

    The costs of therapy are drastically reduced from what they were a decade ago and my wife’s manicurist makes more than most therapists I know. (she is from Vietnam and does not have a high school education). It’s a different world that we have let the hollywood crazed public define for us. Its our own fault becasue we do not protest incorrect descriptions of the therapeutic process in the media and we even applaud the commercialization of it (i.e Dr. Phil). Does anyone think that an OB/GYN or Urologist would consider hosting a TV show! Probably not.

    Providers of mental health care, once licensed by some state or provence, seem to think they can do anything they want and call it “therapy”. Just look at the very big list to the right of this blog. Interesting, the term “Marital” does not even appear. How many of these techniques were on our licensing exams? Are we truely sanctioned to do this under our licenses or are we exceeding our practice boundary, legally and ethically? While the word “Marital does not appear, “Focalizing” and “Yoga Therapy” does.

    The public is increasingly disturstful of any licensed group who make claims and market services cloaked in mythopoetic terminology, eastern/native american religious jargon, or the ever reliable “touchy-feelee you are wonderful” philosophy. It looks often like what it is, a sham. That gives the media an perfect opening to make us look like clowns … or worse, dangerous people to stay away from!

    The images displayed in movies and television are representative of how the public views us… not so good it seems to me. Whether we like what we see in the mirror or not- it does not make the image any less real for the average movie-goer. Unless we change our ways we can expect this to continue.

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