If I were given a donut every time I told someone they should go to therapy, I’d be swimming in sprinkles. The suggestion is never meant as a criticism, it’s just the result of being raised in a pro-therapy household. My dad was a substance abuse counselor, my mom a teacher who worked with hearing-impaired kids from broken homes. They were both very in tune with the importance of mental health, so when my two younger sisters started sneaking out of windows, in came the family therapist.
I vividly remember a bird-like man, pen tip poised over lined paper, who encouraged us to share our deepest secrets with our parents. My sisters revealed nothing, but the session resulted in me hysterically confessing over breakfast the next day that I had smoked pot one time on the railroad tracks with a boy who frequented Hot Topic. My mom, wide-eyed and clutching a cereal spoon, patted my back to calm me down. The therapist’s stereotypical stoicism and silent judgement had shamed me into feeling more damaged than I actually was.
It took a while, but I eventually came back around to therapy in my late twenties, and now consider it the best money I spend on myself. These days I use the phrase “healthy boundaries” so often I should have it emblazoned on a pair of joggers. A huge part of talk therapy being successful for me was finding someone who felt human and relatable, rather than cold and clinical. This shift was an important turning point for me, and it’s one I’ve seen echoed in pop culture as well — television in particular, where we now see not only therapists with a pulse, but sometimes with copious issues of their own.
I’ve become hyper-aware of this evolution. As therapy becomes a larger fixture in primetime TV, with the involved characters having more nuanced roles and storylines, I think the depictions can tell us a lot about society’s relationship to mental health.
In the late 90s, for instance, when therapy was still pretty taboo, we only saw very buttoned-up, intellectual TV therapists, who nodded solemnly from dusty leather chairs — like those in 7th Heaven, Felicity, and Dawson’s Creek. These characters were relatively flat, acting merely as sounding boards or plot devices to make patients seem edgy or screwed up. They rarely had personalities outside of “smart,” and certainly never had issues of their own. In Dawson’s Creek, Dawson’s therapist Dr. Weir was a Meg Ryan-type with spiky blonde hair and, of course, glasses. She is helpful, but removed. In Felicity, Felicity was forced into therapy after a prank involving Ben and a pool. Again, a disconnected woman in a skirt suit and sensible heels. She always takes notes. She always uses a thoughtful writing utensil. She always disappears when the problem is solved.
Sex and the City (1999) has Carrie in therapy post-Big breakup, where she ends up meeting a sex addict in the waiting room. Her therapist, Dr. G, was smug and austere in a lavender button-down and khakis. She suggests that the common denominator in all her failing relationships is her (I mean, fair), with a staid, unblinking stare.
It all made sense for the time — therapists are doctors and so they should look and act like doctors. But then came Dr. Jennifer Melfi on The Sopranos (1999), and the pendulum started to swing in the other direction. While still in the typical taupe and leather office, outfitted in myriad skirt suits, Dr. Melfi’s professional demeanor shifted as the show grew in complexity. For once, we got to learn about the doctor behind the glasses: her family, her own experience in therapy, and her traumas. As viewers, we questioned her ability to help the infamous mob boss, but ultimately, she was the reason he was able to sometimes see outside his borderline personality and narcissistic demeanor. Her problems gave color to his, and helped him become more lovable as a character. We accepted the murder along with the prosciutto.
Gabriel Byrne of In Treatment (2008), punched it up a level with his character Dr. Paul Weston. The trope was fully turned on its head when the show’s protagonist was the therapist. And while we still got an eyeful of issues when it came to his patients, he starts to question his own sanity in the process of assessing others. As viewers, we start to realize that all trust is tenuous, and even the safest places can crumble because we are all fighting our own demons.
From there, the damaged mental health professionals blossom like a tree come springtime. There was Tina Fey as a hot mess alcoholic therapist in The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt (2015). Then Gypsy (2017), starring Naomi Watts, which told the story of a therapist who stalked her patients, seducing them and pitting them against one another. Then, of course, came You (2018), where a sage, leather bracelet-wearing, pot-smoking therapist played by John Stamos carries on an affair with the show’s manic pixie lead.
One of the most striking examples of the therapist evolution is Wanderlust (2018), starring Toni Collette, which tells the story of a woman in a stale marriage who sees a genuinely effective therapist, and is a genuinely effective therapist herself. The show pinpoints a monotony that many long-term couples face — and artfully draws parallels between the protagonist and her own patients.
You could argue this shift in the way television portrays therapy and therapists is somewhat cynical — that it’s transmitting the idea that we’re all messed up, so who can save us? But I prefer the more optimistic take: that it’s a kind of radical acceptance of human fallibility. One that says all humans are flawed, and that means we aren’t alone. Seeing TV therapists, and even our own therapists, as real people with their own anxieties, neurosis, and complicated families, reframes therapy as a human-to-human service, rather than as something solely clinical in nature.
It’s healthy for us to see everyone, even the people we Venmo as we jump off their couches, as complex and three-dimensional. The belief that anyone is perfect can be damaging, so even the simple realization that mental health professionals have their own demons can do a fair bit of mental heavy lifting. Perhaps that’s a lot to conclude from a handful of fictional TV shows — especially considering a few feature therapists as actual criminals, but I think breadth and depth are just what the stigma needs.
Lyz Mancini writes about beauty, culture, and sometimes Jeff Goldblum. You can follow her on IG at @lyzaster
Photo from Wanderlust via Netflix.