What Real Therapists Think of TV Therapists
From 'Frasier' to 'The Sopranos,' we ask real therapists about their favorite on-screen counterparts.
"I'm not trying to make him happy—I am trying to cure his depression!"
As a radio psychiatrist, Frasier Crane may not always have the most therapeutic answers for his callers. But the main character of the sitcom of the same name is one of the most beloved TV psychologists regardless. How do we know? We gathered real mental health professionals and asked them what they thought about their favorite TV doppelgangers.
"[Fraiser is] clever, witty, warm, ... philosophical, and pragmatic," said Cara Itule, a California-based marriage and family therapist. "Although [he does] amazing work, [he is] still simply flawed just like the rest of us. Moreover, [he] juggles ethical conduct while trying to remain personable in [his] practice. A practice that therapists strive to continuously balance."
"He's constantly working on himself and trying to learn to be better," added Nancy Mramor, a Pittsburgh-based psychologist. However, "he oversteps his bounds quite a bit giving advice without knowing what's going on with people."
You can't diagnose a mental health issue in one simple phone call as Crane often does, but that's largely where the show's comedy comes from. And though Crane may be brilliant in his psychiatry career, it's his dysfunctional family relationships that make him relatable. After all, therapists are people too.
"People expect therapists to be above it all. They're not supposed to have feelings, they're not supposed to get upset, they're not supposed to be angry," says Mramor. "People want therapists to be this image of perfection, which they're not. They're very human."
While Frasier is a prime example of a flawed psychiatrist with the best of intentions, he's not the only good model. His dramatic counterpart, Dr. Jennifer Melfi on The Sopranos, provides another humanized portrait of therapy.
"My favorite … is Dr. Melfi," said Dr. Jean Kim, clinical assistant professor of psychiatry at George Washington University in Washington, DC. "I think any sort of media or artistic portrayal matters a lot to a lay audience and sticks in their heads, either on an overt or subconscious level. Dr. Melfi helped humanize the often mysterious role of a psychotherapist/psychoanalyst."
Despite working with a client as extreme as mob boss Tony Soprano, Melfi was able to uphold the basic tenets of what a therapeutic relationship looks like—but Melfi wasn't without flaws. She had to resist the temptation to ask Soprano to kill her rapist, and she also fights off romantic feelings for him that she tries to work through in her own therapy. At the end of the day, however, Melfi's professionalism shines through.
"Dr. Melfi probably squeaked into the hall-of-fame because of many strong sessions," said a clinical psychologist in Chicago. "But she also had inappropriate sessions when she brought in her own problems."
And Melfi isn't the only character on TV that highlights the delicate balance between maintaining a personal life and keeping ethical boundaries with clients. Monk's titular character struggles with severe obsessive compulsive disorder and relies on his therapist, Dr. Charles Kroger, throughout the show. "Dr. Kroger from Monk was my very favorite TV therapist—he was empathic, gentle, and you could feel that he really cared," said Chicago-based psychologist Helen Odessky. "He most resembles what a truly great therapy relationship feels like for both the client and the therapist."
Kroger's struggle with balance came from dealing with his family life while he managed to keep appropriate boundaries with Monk. "[Monk] sent his trash to his therapist, and his therapist said, 'No, you can't do that,' and he sent it back," said Mramor. "[Kroger] can set boundaries with Monk, but not with his own family."
"It is hard to build a relationship with clients that is primarily one-sided, but at the end of the day, we are human and can relate to some of what they are going through," said Esther Ruth Youngman, a licensed clinical social worker in California. "We can't be stoic, but we do have to set limits to create a safe environment for positive change."
Also making the best of list is Dr. Jack Habib on The Newsroom. When lead news anchor Will McAvoy discovers his original therapist has retired, he finds a young Habib in his old therapist's place. While McAvoy is anxious to grab some quick-fix medication for his sleeping problems, Habib pushes McAvoy to spend time on his underlying issues, particularly those stemming from his relationship with his father.
"Dr. Habib offers viewers the experience to witness the positive aspects of being in therapy," said Lisa Brateman, a psychotherapist in New York. "Getting to the source of what is difficult and how it hurts the client is always part of the process of therapy. Viewers begin to understand how their past influences their future and ways to emotionally move past that."
But sometimes what everyone wants, including therapists themselves, is a good laugh. "I believe my very favorite is Fiona Wallice on Web Therapy," said New York-based psychotherapist Janet Zinn. "Laughter is the best medicine and Lisa Kudrow as Fiona Wallice is hysterical."
Wallice invented the modality of three-minute web therapy sessions to cut through the "self-indulgent blather" of regular therapy. During her run, she gives terrible direction to clients, hires a client as her personal assistant, has her sessions hacked, and released by the NSA, realizes her kooky mother isn't her real mother and finally accepts a marriage proposal from another client. Ethical violations and personal dysfunction left and right.
"As a script consultant, I find most representations of mental health professionals on TV lacking in accuracy," said Beverly Hills media psychiatrist Carole Lieberman. "TV shows also often delight in depicting mental health professionals as having more psychological problems than the patients, about which the therapist is oblivious."
This certainly applies to Wallice, who seems blind to her own shortcomings and their impact on the people around her. Which brings up the question about how these over-the-top representations of therapy—whether it's Frasier, Monk, or Wallice for comedy or the ways Melfi and Habib are dramatized—influence clients who may be seeking help.
"I definitely think that all TV representations of therapists impact clients considering mental health treatment," said Maelisa Hall, a California-based psychologist. "There is still a lot of stigma around having a mental health diagnosis, and people are afraid of being labeled 'crazy' if they share about being in therapy."
"I think it's great to have therapists depicted on television and film," added Zinn. "It normalizes going to a therapist and takes the stigma out of getting support."