Psychologists are Mind Readers:

Common Myths about Psychologists and how they are Perpetuated by Film

The attitudes towards psychologists and their practice are very different today than what they were in the eighteen and nineteen hundreds. In comparison, therapists today are not as heavily criticised or viewed with as much scepticism. Overall, there is an increased awareness in regards to psychology, its practitioners, and the conditions that are treated. Yet, there are some common myths that remain, and these can be largely blamed on movies and television series.

The Changing Face of Psychology: the New Trend?

Nowadays, just about everyone has a therapist, or will have one at some point in their lives, and while most people are quite private about it, it’s not uncommon for others to talk about their sessions openly and pass along their psychologist’s name to friends. Courses in psychology are some of the most popular at universities the world over, and the film industry has something of an obsession with sexy and murderous psychologists. It wouldn’t be too far off the mark to say that psychology is practically trending.

While psychology as a trend is not without its problems, as it underestimates the seriousness of mental health and the sometimes traumatic issues that are dealt with in therapy, it is also a perspective that has in some ways been beneficial in terms of reducing stigmatisation. The more ‘normal’ that therapy is considered amongst the wider public, the more likely it is that people who really need it will feel less worried about seeking help and thus be more likely to do so. The increased interest in the field has also brought more funding to researchers and an increased knowledge and awareness of mental health disorders. In some ways, the field is experiencing its moment in the light – and thank goodness, because the knowledge generated by psychologists and psychiatrists has closed a gap in the medical community.

Psychologists in Film and Television

Despite a general increase in awareness in regards to the practice of psychology and the issues it deals with, many people still misunderstand and feel intimidated by therapists. This view is largely to blame on the media, who continues to misrepresent psychiatric practice to the masses. In particular, the film and television industry frequently portrays therapists and their practice in a negative light.

Movies:

  • A Clockwork Orange (1971)
  • The Silence of the Lambs (1991)
  • The Prince of Tides (1991)
  • Girl, Interrupted (1999)
  • Temptation: Confessions of a Marriage Counselor (2013)
  • Side Effects (2013)

Television Series:

  • The Sopranos (1999)
  • Arrested Development (first aired 2003)
  • Bones (2005)
  • Mad Men (2007)
  • Lie to Me (first aired 2009)
  • Hannibal (first aired 2013)

The above shows can all be blamed for depicting therapists in varying degrees of poor practice. At the most extreme end of the spectrum, we see the character Hannibal Lecter in ‘Silence of the Lambs’ and ‘Hannibal’ as a psychiatrist who is also a cannibalistic serial killer, and on the lesser end of the spectrum we see Lance in ‘Bones’ being unprofessional by socialising with his clients and asking them for relationship advice. In between that we see characters crossing the ethical boundaries in a mixture of ways – by having sexual relationships with their clients, giving poor advice, having frequent and continuous breakdowns, and just being generally over-confident and pig-headed.

Myths and Fears about Psychologists

  • Psychologists are always analysing people and they can tell what you’re thinking – this is a very common fear amongst people who are unfamiliar with psychology. It’s no surprise that people tend to be a bit paranoid, even bordering on the superstitious, when it comes to their privacy. Naturally, it is a prerequisite that psychologists be interested in the human mind. It’s expected that they take a greater interest in human behaviour and emotion, which follows that they likely do have more practised observational skills than the average person. But they are still just people and they certainly cannot read your mind. They are also probably not paying any more attention to your behaviour than anyone else, unless, of course, you’re their patient.
  • Psychologists are all crazier than their patients – therapists, just like their patients and everyone else, have to deal with the same struggles of life. Being a psychologist doesn’t mean that life is easy and that nothing ever goes wrong. They are ordinary human beings and are not immune to relationship issues, the loss of a loved one, financial strain, illness, or anything else.
  • Psychologists have dangerous, secret lives – the depiction of psychologists leading double lives in the movies has resulted in a fear that psychologists are secretly not the benevolent beings that they appear to be during sessions. While the Hannibal Lecter’s of the cinema make for great entertainment, they’re nothing like reality, which some people will be disappointed to realise is far more boring. Although patients typically do know only the bare minimum about the life and character of their therapists, this is not to cover up their secret lives, but to protect the interests of both the therapist and the patient and to encourage professionalism.
  • Psychologists commonly have sexual relations with their patients – this is a deeply damaging myth about therapists. In fact, psychological practices are moderated, and all therapists are held to a code of ethics that does not allow sexual relations to occur between the therapist and the patient.
  • Psychologists can discuss your sessions with others – there’s a scene in Mad Men where Betty Draper’s therapist goes behind her back to tell her husband what goes on during her sessions. Thankfully, this is just another myth we owe to television. Psychologists are bound by both a code of ethics and the law to keep your information confidential. A psychologist can only release your information to an outside party in situations where you may harm yourself or others, or if you are involved in a court case.

Everyone loves a good movie, and psychologists appear to make for notoriously entertaining characters. But the negative representation of psychologists in the media has created a foundation of myths amongst the public. The entertainment industry is unlikely to withdraw such a lucrative trope from its screens, and people need to be increasingly aware of how their favourite television shows feed off their fears to create drama.

If you live in the Centurion, Pretoria area and you are looking for a psychologist, contact Louw Alberts.