GoodTherapy.org is dedicated to ethical therapeutic practices, but the images people see in the media can color their perceptions of what therapy should and should not be. These portrayals might seem like mere entertainment, but they can intimidate some people about therapy, subtly discouraging people who need help from seeking it. Among those already in therapy, television portrayals of abusive or unethical therapy practices could cause clients to mistakenly believe that unethical, abusive practices are normal and healthy.
Hannibal tells the tale of a serial killer psychiatrist who eats his victims—a scary enough prospect. The questionable ethics don’t end there, though. Without receiving consent, Dr. Chilton and Dr. Lecter both use questionable hypnosis techniques to alter memories of the people who see them for therapy and change their behavior. Dr. Lecter continues to see Will Graham, a client who is investigating him for murder and who himself tried to have Dr. Lecter murdered. The show also portrays psychiatrists as all-knowing people who can exert significant control over people’s behavior. This is a particularly frightening portrayal in a television show where psychiatrists are murderous monsters.
In the first season of Mad Men, the anxious and insecure Betty Draper sees a psychiatrist to find a solution to recurrent numbness in her hands. The psychiatrist reveals details of Betty’s sessions to her husband, Don, without Betty’s consent. He uses her husband’s comments as his primary source of information about Mrs. Draper, completely ignoring Betty’s statements. In one session, Betty becomes concerned her psychiatrist is looking down her shirt.
Celebrity Rehab with Dr. Drew
Confidentiality is a hallmark of good therapy. People are more likely to reveal relevant pieces of life history and important feelings with their therapist when they know their privacy is protected. But Celebrity Rehab with Dr. Drew completely abandons this therapeutic norm by showing “therapy” sessions with celebrities. The ethical issues here are compounded by the fact that many of the people on Dr. Drew’s show seem troubled by the lack of privacy their celebrity status has yielded.
Dr. Phil remains one of the most popular talk shows, but the series suffers from the same confidentiality challenges as Celebrity Rehab with Dr. Drew. Dr. Phil frequently yells at his guests and promotes a very specific set of values. Guests who disagree with Dr. Phil’s proclamations are lambasted and told they’re resistant to improving their own lives. Good therapy, by contrast, doesn’t force any particular value set onto someone in therapy, but instead builds upon his or her own values to help him or her create a more fulfilling life.
How I Met Your Mother
If therapy clients believed what they were told on TV, they might thinkdating your therapist is not only normal, but beneficial. In How I Met Your Mother, Robin dates her previous therapist. The pair justifies the relationship by arguing that she wasn’t in therapy very long, but such justifications have no place in the world of real therapy. A therapist is not an appropriate romantic partner, and therapists who engage in sexual relationships with their patients are taking advantage of a power imbalance.
Ethical therapy helps clients transform their lives without fostering dependence or demanding a client accept a predetermined set of values. To learn more about ethical therapy, check out this GoodTherapy.org guide to warning signs of bad therapy.
- Code of ethics. (n.d.). Retrieved from https://www.aamft.org/imis15/content/legal_ethics/code_of_ethics.aspx
- Potential ethical violations. (n.d.). Retrieved from https://www.apa.org/topics/ethics/potential-violations.aspx
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