Psychologists' group gives TV awards
The psychiatrist in HBO's "The Sopranos" is slipping. The high school counselor in HBO's "Six Feet Under" is promising. But the official honors go to NBC's "Law & Order" and ABC's "Once and Again" for their portrayals of mental health professionals.
The American Psychological Association gave its annual media award Sunday to specific episodes of the two network shows, which included portrayals of anorexia and a school shooting.
"People get their ideas about what therapy is like from television and the movies," says Baltimore psychologist Shirley Glass, who co-chairs APA's media watch committee. And the APA abhors portrayals of the incompetent, the unprincipled, the unethical and the sex-obsessed who get horizontal with clients.
Some research shows that the public is confused about the proper relationship between a therapist and a client. A study of 504 young adults in Houston found 70 percent think it's fine to have a social or business relationship after therapy, and 41 percent, a romance. Glass says no outside relationship is considered by professional associations to be appropriate either during or after therapy, partly because the therapist will always have a power advantage.
Edward Zwick, executive producer of "Once and Again," says he lets his work speak for itself, although "there is an agenda in what we do. And certainly the value of therapy and the need to talk openly about difficult topics is part of that agenda." The series won for two episodes involving treatment for anorexia.
The "Law & Order" portrayal of an unprofessional therapist and of the treatment of a school gunman won recognition. Says Dick Wolf, the creator and executive producer: "Everybody associated with the show felt that the subtleties and complexities of these issues were very important."
In 1999, the APA honored "The Sopranos" for the portrayal of psychiatrist Jennifer Melfi. But the character's professionalism has deteriorated since then, Glass says. "She is no longer really being helpful" to Tony Soprano. She confronts him a little, she listens a little." And her attempt at couples therapy "was just ridiculous."
But Claire Fisher (played by Lauren Ambrose), the complex, lost teenager on the new HBO hit "Six Feet Under," is receiving solid guidance, Glass says. "Her high school counselor is doing an excellent job."
The APA needn't worry so much about portrayals, says Douglas Noverr, a professor of American thought and language at Michigan State University. "The public understands these are dramatic shows, done for dramatic purposes."