Five Examples of Bad Therapy in Your Favorite TV Shows

dr. phil tv therapistGoodTherapy.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

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.

Mad Men

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

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.

References:

  1. Code of ethics. (n.d.). Retrieved from https://www.aamft.org/imis15/content/legal_ethics/code_of_ethics.aspx
  2. Potential ethical violations. (n.d.). Retrieved from https://www.apa.org/topics/ethics/potential-violations.aspx

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  • Dylan

    Dylan

    May 3rd, 2014 at 1:02 PM

    I hated those episodes of Mad Men too!
    I love that show but I thought that the shows that depicted Betty going to therapy did a real disservice to therapists even if that was of a different time and era.
    I think that TV shows as a general rule should be more responsible in their depictions of medical things like this, and while they have to be true to the time frame sometimes it is best not to address them at all of it is going to oevrall give a bd rep to the profession as a whole.

  • Jade

    Jade

    May 5th, 2014 at 3:29 AM

    I don’t think that there is really anyone out there who takes advice from the fictionalized television shows that they watch… do they? :/

  • Amy Armstrong

    Amy Armstrong

    May 5th, 2014 at 6:52 AM

    What surprises me (in a good way) is that most of my clients don’t walk through the door expecting our sessions to be like the ones in movies or TV. Psychotherapy on the big and small screen has a troubled past, and it isn’t all unrealistic. The Snakepit, starring Olivia DeHaviland, Girl, Interrupted, and Frances highlight some of the low points in mental health interventions—laxatives, isolation, ECT, and lobotomy. I guess if anyone asks me why I don’t roll like Dr. Phil, I’ll say, “He has his own style.”

  • Simon

    Simon

    May 5th, 2014 at 4:34 PM

    I have never been the type of person to think that just because I saw something on TV that this was the end all and be all.But with that being said I know that there are plenty of people out there who are like that otherwise you wouldn’t have to write a piece about it. I think that most of us are smart enough to realize that this is just a portrayal and not always a very accurate one. Of course, you could prove me wrong by spouting off ratings to pieces of junk shows like the Bachelore- when you think about how many people watch that and think that it is love until the end… well, then you might be right- there might be a real problem with perception.

  • Nazli S

    Nazli S

    May 5th, 2014 at 8:13 PM

    What about the show “anger management”? There are so many things wrong with the way it portrays therapy.

  • Xavier

    Xavier

    May 6th, 2014 at 3:36 AM

    Now tell me please what is so wrong with Dr. Phil? I think that he is a pretty decent guy, even Oprah loved him enough to get him his own show. I am not saying that I take his word for the gospel but there have been some shows in the past that have honestly spoken to me and helped me out with some things that I have worked through in my own life. I think that a lot of times his message of stand your ground and be strong is something that many of us could take something from and learn from. I just don’t see what is wrong with that. So there you have it, I am a fan of Dr Phil.

  • Pandora MacLean-Hoover

    Pandora MacLean-Hoover

    May 6th, 2014 at 3:43 AM

    Well written, excellent points!
    Thank you.

  • Wanda

    Wanda

    May 7th, 2014 at 3:32 AM

    they are all for entertainment, not educational purposes, if that is what you are looking for then tv is the wrong place

  • bess a

    bess a

    May 9th, 2014 at 3:42 AM

    I agree with Pandora, well written with something for all of us to think about. I know that logically most of us will write in here and say that we know this is not for real and that we would never go to someone like that for therapy. But look, the fact is that there are a lot of people who do take what they see on television to be the gospel and no matter how many people don’t there are just as many who do. That is where we have to be careful with how things are portrayed and played out on tv. I am not for censoring the shows, that’s not me or who I’m all about but at least make the disclaimer that maybe this “therapy” is being doled out by say an internist and not a mental health professional, and hopefully that will let viewers know even more strongly that hey, this is for kicks only, not your weekly dose of therapy.

  • Wendy

    Wendy

    May 9th, 2014 at 5:19 PM

    I don’t watch Mad Men, but I know it’s historical fiction. Even if the therapist shown in the show is a bad therapist, it might not be historically inaccurate for a therapist to have told a woman’s husband what she said. When my own mother was in therapy in the early 1970s for alcoholism and confusion about her sexuality (turns out she’s a lesbian), she was prescribed sleeping pills and other drugs, and also told a lot of stuff by her therapist. It wasn’t good. And sometimes fiction depicts the bad — cause the past wasn’t all a bowl of cherries.

  • brenda schwartz

    brenda schwartz

    May 9th, 2014 at 7:57 PM

    It NOT therapy… however, it is a semblance of how therapists will work to find the referrals necessary to the patient/client’s mental health… in that respect, Dr. Phil is doing a service to these people whose problems make good tv… he is not really doing a service to the hard working therapists who really care and who really want to help… they might not have the “free” services to offer their clients, but they do take on the responsibility to “do no harm” !!! I fear that Dr. Phil’s expository blood-letting techniques do not take his client/patient’s real needs and respect into account… in other words, the show is a money-maker at the expense (or desire) of his guests… LCSW

  • st topper

    st topper

    November 25th, 2017 at 7:56 AM

    My favorite tv therapists and most true to life in my experience were Head Case and Web Therapy.

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