Mental Health in the Media
The representation of mental health in mass media is a bigger joke than our current White House administration. The discussion of mental health in mass media has been fueled by the new normal of mass shootings. The discussion usually starts with some elected official says guns are not the problem it is a mental health issue. The underlying message in this narrative is that people who have mental health issues are dangerous and we should do something about “those people” to keep the rest of us safe. This narrative is often re- enforced in mass media particularly in movies and television shows. In recent years there has been some attempt to highlight the struggles of those people living with mental health issues. It is a mixed bag on a good day and a shit show most of the time. Below is a list of shows that have attempted address mental health in the media.
The Sopranos- Tony Soprano goes to therapy to see Dr. Melfi. I never actually knew the reason he was in therapist. I imagine he was dealing with depression and many some anxiety but I digress. The portrayal of the relationship between the therapist and the client was well managed and in many ways it showed how the process works for the therapist and the client. From Tony’s sexual fantasies about his therapist to his angry outburst when she was taking him to places he didn’t want to go. And the challenges of Dr Melfi to manage her curiosity about her client including his source of income or her wanting him to rescue her when she was raped. The show also did an excellent job conveying the shame that many people experience in needing to seek mental health support including denying needing help and lying about being in treatment
Good Will Hunting- No matter how you feel about Robin Williams his performance in this role as a therapist with a story tugs at the heart. For many people who become therapist we do have a story. Being a therapist or counselor chooses you, you don’t choose it. Your experiences lead you to a place where all you can do to heal your wounds is to help other people. I know many of you will disagree with me and some will be offended. Get over it. Its my take on it. Anyway, his pain makes him able to “see” Matt Damon’s character. The “breakthrough” is what we think we all want as providers. Sometimes we do and sometimes we do not. This image might send the wrong message to people seeking help and people wanting help. Sometimes the breakthrough leads to a breakdown and some clients never get to that place of truth in their experience. It does not mean that anyone failed it just me their is more to do on that journey for that client.
Empire- One of the main characters on the show is diagnosed as being bipolar. The show about a black wealthy family is definitively breaking new ground while offending some and fueling the debate about black images in media. But tackling the stigma, shame, and struggle of black people with mental health issues is a first for network television. Yes they get it wrong and in some ways may re-enforce stereotypes that mentally ill people are violent or dangerous. But it also shows the struggle for acceptable and the inability to have empathy for those things we do not understand and the strain chronic mental health issues can have on a family.
Fraiser- Full disclosure I probably watched about 10 episodes of Fraiser ever so I do not know how much mental health issues the show actually addressed. I will say that the portrayal of the psychiatrist at times felt like it was hard to tell who was the patient and who was the doctor. I assume that was a part of the comedy but in a discipline and a field that seems to always be criticized as being not valid, not important, or not worthy or insurance coverage it may have been a missed opportunity.
And the hot mess that is…
Dr. Phil- He makes our work look as easy but he is not doing our work. I am not really sure what the hell he is doing and why is making so much money doing it. I guess it is good to know Oprah. Being a therapist is hard enough without having to undo the silly 1 hour fix that shows like Dr Phil provide to people who have real issues that are impacting their functioning and well being.
This list is very short and by no means is a full representation of mental health in the media. I think the challenge in representing something so personal and complicated is how to do you show the truth without exploiting the issue. I have no answer but as a mental health provider I think if we can figure out a more balanced authentic way to show the complexity of mental health issues those we serve may be better prepared for seeking the help they deserve.