Dr. Blumenfield addresses the presence and portrayal of psychiatrists on television.
This article originally appeared online at psychiatrytalk.com.
I was watching the TV coverage of the celebration after the LA Lakers won the NBA championship by defeating the Boston Celtics. A TV reporter thrust the microphone in front of ebullient LA player Ron Artest and asked him how he felt. Among the words that the elated basketball player blurted out on national television was that he would like to thank his psychiatrist! He went on to say, “There is so much commotion going on in the playoffs. She helped me relax.” Granted, this was not an Academy Award acceptance speech, but is seemed quite unusual and remarkable that we are now hearing such a public acknowledgment.Ron Artest has had outbursts of temper in the past, and one time a few years ago, he ran into the stands and pummeled a fan. However, it is not known if his psychiatric treatment involved psychotherapy, psychopharmacology, or some type of relaxation therapy concerning this crucial series. It is significant that more celebrities in recent years have been comfortable in talking about their own mental health issues and their treatment with psychiatrists and other mental health professionals.
When the Boston Celtics started winning their championships in the 1960s, such a public statement was nearly unheard of. In 1972, a vice presidential candidate was revealed to have had depression with ECT treatment, and he had to resign from the ticket. While I suspect that a modern day politician could still not survive such a public revelation, there has been a steady flow of celebrities who choose to talk about the their mental problems and psychiatric treatment without any discernible harm to their careers.
For example, this list would include Richard Dreyfus, Uma Thurman, Ben Stiller, Jim Carey, George Michael, Adam Ant, Sinead O’Connor, Winona Ryder, with some becoming spokespersons for mental health issues and even appearing at psychiatric meetings, such as Mike Wallace, Brooke Shield, and Carrie Fisher.
These public revelations demonstrate how far we have come in the fight against stigma in regard to mental illness. Even the fictional roles of therapists on television have evolved. In the 1970s, there was a situation comedy in which comedian Bob Newhart played a therapist. It was good for a lot of laughs and lasted for 7 years. Television’s depiction of therapy today is a much more realist one.
For example, In Treatmentis an HBO drama about a fictionalized psychotherapist, 53-year-old Dr. Paul Weston, and his weekly sessions with patients. The program, which stars Gabriel Byrne as Paul, debuted on January 28, 2008, as a five-night-a-week show and now is beginning it’s third year. The therapist certainly is shown with human flaws but as somebody who has genuinely helped his patients. Another somewhat more sensational type of TV production is the reality TV show Celebrity Rehab, and subsequent spinoffs, with Dr. Drew Pinsky, an internist and addiction specialist who treats various celebrities on each show. The participants are obviously comfortable revealing their addiction problems and how they are trying to get help.
When world famous golfer Tiger Woods had marital problems and sexual issues, he was shown going to some kind of a treatment facility. Psychiatrists and other mental health professionals have appeared as characters on television medical dramas such as ER, as well as in some the popular police and crime dramas. They are usually shown in a very positive light. The evolution of the depiction of psychiatry and mental illness in the cinema is a fascinating and important story that has greatly influenced the public’s attitude on these subjects. Two worthwhile books that discuss this subject are Psychiatry and the Cinema by Krin and Glen Gabbard and Reel Psychiatry by David Robinson.
The widespread use of computers and the Internet has surely contributed also to the changes in the attitude toward mental illness and therapy. Information about mental illness and treatment is available within a few clicks, as is information about any physical condition. Blogs and websites are easily found on any subject, including those that deal with some aspect of mental health. Organizations that have traditionally tried to address the stigma of mental illness, such as the Mental Health America (MHA), the National Alliance On Mental Illness (NAMI), the American Psychiatric Association (APA), and many other reputable groups now have very popular websites that are seen by millions of people.
The social media on the Internet such as Facebook and Twitter are facilitating a freer communication that does bring into the open psychological concerns along with everything else. It seems to discourage people from allowing painful secrets to fester in a harmful manner. On this blog, I recently wrote about a website called Postsecrets, where people anonymously post their secrets in the form of an artistic postcard. When a San Francisco resident told of his or her discouragement about life and plan to jump off the Golden Gate Bridge, more than 60,000 people responded in a supportive manner.
I am sure that we still have a long way to go before stigma about mental problems and receiving therapy is eliminated. However, there are lots of indications that we are moving in the right direction. Most psychiatrists and other therapists are probably well adjusted enough that they don’t need to see their patients praising them on national TV as Ron Artest chose to do. However, when someone wants to issue a public thank you, it is great to realize that there is no reason to feel that they can’t do it.
Michael Blumenfield, MD, is a board-certified psychiatrist practicing in Woodland Hills, CA. He blogs at PsychiatryTalk.com - a blog for everyone interested in mental health issues.