It’s difficult enough to see accurate portrayals of health care on television (see: every bonkers storyline from Grey’s Anatomy). Accurate portrayal of mental health care is even harder to come by. For one, it’s often jazzed up for television because watching two people talk doesn’t always lend itself to exciting on-screen drama. Another is that even with therapists and psychologists on board to help the writing staff, every experience is so vastly different that a therapist’s – or patient’s – actual experience with therapy may not be reflected on screen. And oftentimes, a character’s storyline ends when they realize there is a problem, but we don’t see them continue therapy session.
That said, there’s been a resurgence of TV shows about therapy and therapy-client relationships, with characters figuring out their mental health issues. Here are just a few of the TV series that have attempted to handle the process of therapy with care and compassion, for both the characters and the trained therapists:
In Treatment: Gabriel Byrne, who plays clinical psychologist Dr. Paul Weston, sees a variety of personality disordered patients in his private practice. What the show is able to do that many are not is illustrate the development of the therapist-client relationship. Though a bunch of theoretical therapeutic approaches and therapy techniques are used – and many that make for terrible psychotherapy – it still shows patients suffering from mood disorders, suicidal ideation, and LGBTQ issues. The actual therapy seems to approve as Dr. Weston’s mentee, Brooke Taylor (played by Uzo Aduba) takes over the practice.
It’s Okay to Not Be Okay: The South Korean drama on Netflix deals with multiple mental health and neurodevelopment issues, including autism and personality disorders. Though many of the characters and their stories revolve around various traumas, the show’s diversity makes it a must-watch for aspiring therapists learning how to effectively and empathetically deal with these concerns. It might even answer some of your therapy questions.
Big Little Lies: In spite of the show’s title, there is a surprising confrontation in the first season as Nicole Kidman’s character Celeste Wright goes to therapy and comes to terms with the fact that she is indeed in an abusive relationship with her spouse. The therapy scenes portrayed have the look of a Monterey, California office, but the heart of a concerned and caring therapist who is ready to aid Celeste in escaping her abusive home with practical, factual help.
Insecure: Although Molly (Yvonne Orji) on Insecure and her time in therapy isn’t the main focus, it’s still an integral part of Molly’s growth as a character. She starts her first session pretending everything is fine, but ends up admitting she needs help much later on. Dr. Rhonda is able to get Molly to open up and reflect back how often Molly believes she “should” do something versus what Molly wants in life. And it may be minor, but the set decor in Dr. Rhonda’s office demonstrates how an office can serve as conversation starters. Not every therapy office is a cavernous or clinical space, and offers a glimpse into what other therapist offices can look like, with tons of books, plants, and knick knacks without any clutter. Moreover, it portrays a Black therapist treating a Black patient with care and empathy.
Crazy Ex-Girlfriend: The CW musical dramedy showcases Dr. Noelle Akopian (played by Michael Hyatt) who agrees to counsel Rebecca Bunch, even though Rebecca is just there to get a refill of psychoactive drugs. By the end of the series, Dr. Akopian has managed to get Rebecca to open up to her, as well as diagnosed her with borderline personality disorder and helped her deal with suicidal ideation.
This is Us: Though the network show’s melodramatic core centers around flashbacks and the present for complex family relationships, the therapy scenes mostly focus on the adopted character Randall, and his therapist Dr. Leigh encourages him to accept he is unable to control many of the circumstances in his life.
The Sopranos: Of course, this list would be remiss if it didn’t include one of the first TV shows to really showcase therapy and the therapeutic process. Even if Dr. Jennifer Melfi, played by Lorraine Bracco, is treating a mobster, she’s still treating him with a flexible approach that suits her patient. Tony Soprano is a tough patient who isn’t used to having boundaries set, and in one scene, a furious Tony smashes objects in her office. Dr. Melfi explains he’s crossed a boundary and it isn’t acceptable, which prompts him to apologize – a huge moment for him, both as a patient and a mob boss. Her firm but nonjudgmental approach helped Tony open up in ways he would’ve otherwise never among closest family and friends.
Couples Therapy: A compelling documentary deep dive into the world of relationship counseling, Couples Therapy chronicles four real-life couples from varying backgrounds of race, gender and sexual orientation as they candidly expose their intimacy issues to the compassion, clarity and tough love of gifted therapist, Dr. Orna Guralnik. It’s a great documentary style reality show that not only showcases real life couples working through their issues in therapy, but also depicts Dr. Guralnik working through her counseling with her own clinical advisors and peers.
While television is typically a way to escape the daily grind, it can be interesting and even fun to see your professional life reflected in your entertainment. If you’re interested in moving into online therapy for your practice, Advekit is the ultimate partner.