Just when you thought therapy’s public image couldn’t get any worse, the movie “Side Effects” comes out. I saw this movie last night and I’ll give a brief synopsis for those who haven’t seen it. Don’t worry, I wont ruin the ending. Basically, a young woman is going through a major transition in her relationship and becomes very depressed. She sees a psychiatrist for treatment and he puts her on a new medication called “Ablixa”. I thought it was worth noting that in the movie, Ablixa’s name, packaging, and logo was shockingly similar to the medication Abilify. As stated in promotional poster “One pill can change your life”. Apparently, a side effect of this medication is that it can cause you to kill someone without your intent or conscious awareness. You can gather all of this just by watching the trailer for the movie.
Your first thought might be “Actually, isn’t this good PR for therapists? Too many people are reaching for the nearest antidepressant instead of getting real help. It was psychiatrists who are vilified in the movie, not therapists. Maybe this is a good thing?” I really wanted to think this too, but remember, most people don’t know the difference between a psychiatrist, a psychologist, or a counselor. The movie made this distinction even more confusing since one of the psychiatrists was depicted acting very much like a counselor. I think if people weren’t confused before, they definitely were after seeing the movie. Another scene in the movie that bothered me was that the woman starts to experience serious side effects so her husband asks the psychiatrist if there was any alternative treatment for his wife depression other than medication. The psychiatrists answer was that the only alternative was more medication. Never once did they mention talk therapy (which has proven to be just as effective as medication) as an alternative treatment, which by the way, has no side effects!
Although the psychiatrist does redeem himself in the end, I think it’s also fair to note that the majority of people whom see the trailer will not end up seeing the actual movie. Instead, millions of people in America will be getting the message that seeking treatment for your depression is dangerous and will just make things worse for you. This isn’t the first time the media has painted therapy in the worst possible way. In fact, the only movie I could think of that was fair to therapists was Good Will Hunting, and even that one depicted the therapist as a bit unstable. Another recent psychology themed movie, A Dangerous Method, focused mainly on Psychologists’ unethical behavior with their clients. And again, the title of the movie alone gives the impression that therapy is dangerous. Although medical doctors have killed, abused, and mistreated patients, their media reputation is quite different isn’t it? I decided to examine the way medical doctors are portrayed in the media versus the way therapists are portrayed:
Life-saving Life-ruining / Dangerous
Over worked and underpaid Under worked and over paid
High morals Low morals
Would do anything for a patient Too busy for patients / self-centered
Just want to help people Just want to make a buck
I could go on, but I think it would be redundant. The point is, physicians are consistently portrayed in the most positive way while therapists are portrayed in the worst possible way. It especially bothers me that therapists are always portrayed as being wealthy. How many wealthy therapists do you know? I actually know therapists that are working full time and yet still have to collect food stamps. Clearly, something has to change to clean up our image. We can each try on the individual level but the problem is that such a small percentage of the population will ever actually see a therapist. Ideally, our associations could pay for some pro-therapy PSAs, but I don’t see that happening anytime soon.