The TV therapists who do the job well

Petr Kratochvil / / Licensed under Creative Commons ZeroAt the risk of being exposed for the nerd I am, I’ve been closely following the TV show The Flash. It tells the story of the superhero dubbed “The fastest man alive.” When I sat down to watch a recent episode, I read the description before starting. That description noted that the main character was going to be attending a therapy session with his wife. I immediately became skeptical. Most movie and TV therapists act unprofessionally, unethically, or some combination of the two (for example, the therapist in 13 Reasons Why).

I didn’t know whether to continue watching, for fear that a bad therapist would ruin the entire show. I recognize the irrationality in that thought, but I’m proud of my education and my profession. I have a hard time supporting those who portray it poorly.

I decided to stick it out and give the show a chance, and I am glad that I did. The therapist (played by Donna Pescow) spoke calmly and empathetically, and in a manner that commanded respect and authority. Her office was quiet, inviting, and well organized. Her therapeutic work appeared primarily systemic in nature, and she continually surprised me with her empathy and professionalism.

More specifically, there were several aspects of those therapy sessions that impressed me:

  1. The main character, Barry Allen (Grant Gustin), was depicted as being incredibly resistant to marriage therapy and the potential impact it could have on his relationship. Throughout the episode, Barry was seen actively denying his emotions and becoming aware of the consequences of doing so. The therapist was able to use empathy, thought-provoking questions, and silence to help Barry feel comfortable expressing himself more authentically. Upon expressing himself, the therapist focused on his strengths and resilience to motivate Barry.
  2. When the couple had a disagreement in session, the therapist effectively maintained control of the room, while allowing the couple space to explore their frustrations. The therapist also continually utilized silence, which the show depicted as moments when the characters would engage in self-reflection.
  3. At the conclusion of the episode, the therapist softly acknowledged the additional struggles that Barry seemed to be enduring and encouraged him to reach out more frequently to explore those struggles. She suggested using those sessions to explore personal issues that were negatively impacting Barry’s marriage.

Fortunately, there are other recent shows that have also portrayed therapists well. Atypical is one of them. It is about the life of a high-functioning autistic teenager and his family. Regardless what you think about the depiction of autism (which I actually think is pretty good), the therapist in the show (Amy Okuda) is awesome. She does an incredible job of managing parents trying to intervene in the therapeutic process, setting boundaries with clients, and even addressing personal relationship struggles. She does all of this with consistent professionalism and adherence to her ethics and morals. Although there are moments when her personal struggles seem to impact her therapeutic work, she does well to acknowledge and address them. I was consistently surprised with how accurately the show depicted the struggles that many therapists endure.

Other recent shows that have depicted TV therapists well include:
Mr. Robot (Gloria Reuben)
High Maintenance (Ben Sinclair)
In Treatment (Gabriel Byrne)

And of course, there was the therapist in You’re the Worst, praised on this very blog last year. I am hopeful that this is a trend toward more accurate and empathetic portrayals of therapy. Since TV therapists are often all that people know about therapy, better depictions might encourage viewers to seek help when they need it.