Typecasting mental health professionals

17 September 2010

Written by: Jean Kemshal-Bell

On Monday, the series finale of Skins aired on SBS. The British television drama has both upset and pleased audiences for its often raw and truthful depiction of teenagers. Unlike many other teen dramas, Skins refuses to show holier-than-now youths, who resist drugs, sex and rock ‘n’ roll—in this case techno.  And while Skins’ characters indulge in activities that would make any parents squirm, it resists glorifying such behaviour.

Now in its fourth season, after gaining a new set of cast members in the third, the show is dealing with some even more confronting issues that are relevant to today’s youths. And just when Skins was doing everything right to get its youthful audience thinking about important subjects, it let us down in its final moments just to create some extra drama.

Last week, one of the characters, Freddie, was bashed to death by his girlfriend, Effy’s, psychologist. Effy, a lead character in the show, had tried to kill herself and was taken to a rehabilitation centre. Her psychologist had become obsessed with her, his techniques made her worse than she was before, and finally his jealousy drove him to kill Freddie.

Dramatic yes, but the suggestion that mental health professionals are unprofessional and can’t be trusted, and that seeking help for a mental illness may not make you feel any better, is a discouraging message to send Skins’ viewers.

The show’s prime audience is 16 – 24 years old, which also happens to be the demographic most affected by mental illness.  While Skins viewers are aware they are shown a fictional, dramatic psychologist character to shock and entertain, Skins is not alone in presenting these negative stereotypes; rarely are we shown positive or accurate depictions of mental health professionals on screen.

Can you remember the last time you saw a realistic portrayal of a mental health professional in the media? Or perhaps you don’t even know what an accurate depiction of one is. You are not to blame.

In response to how mental health professionals are portrayed in Hollywood, American psychologist Harriet T. Schultz, along with other members of the American Psychological Association, developed several categories of stereotypes that are shown on screen. They include:

‘Dr. Dippy,’ who is crazier or wackier than his patients, like Brenda’s parents in TV series Six Feet Under or TV’s Frasier Crane. ‘Dr. Evil’, a corrupt mind-controller or homicidal maniac, like Hannibal Lecter in Silence of the Lambs. ‘Dr. Rigid’, who stifles joy, fun and creativity. ‘Dr. Line-Crosser’, who becomes romantically involved with a patient, like the police psychologist in The Departed or Richard Gere in Final Analysis. The psychologist in Skins fits in to every one of these categories.

Of course the entertainment industry is in the business of entertaining, but there is a very real danger in these misrepresentations. If you’ve never visited a mental health professional, the media may well be your only understanding of what counselling is like. For a person experiencing a mental illness, seeking help is hard enough without having to wonder if the professional you see is going to be trust worthy or worth your while.

Almost half the population will experience a mental health disorder at some point in their life.  Depression alone is predicted to be one of the world’s largest health problems by 2020. Despite this, only one third of people with a mental health disorder used health services for their mental illness in 2007. One of the main reasons people don’t seek help is for fear of stigma, which SANE Australia says is predominately perpetuated by the media. In response to this, SANE has developed StigmaWatch, an initiative where the public can report any misleading representations of mental health issues shown in the media.

In a 2003 study, Steve G Hartwig and Catherine Delin of the University of South Australia surveyed Australians and found that psychologists are viewed unfavourably by the public, and that participants believed GPs, nurses and other ‘physical-health’ professionals are ‘needed’ more than psychologists. Yet those who had seen a psychologist before were more willing to consult them again in the future.

With these reoccurring stereotypes put forward by the media – that mental health professionals are useless, a waste of money, crazy themselves, can’t be trusted or will save you with their love and friendship – it is little wonder that those who haven’t seen a mental health professional before have these preconceptions.

Unfortunately, despite its prominence, mental illness is still taboo in society. We have little understanding of those who experience it first hand and those who work hard to fight it.

On Monday, Skins’ loyal audience watched Effy no better than the week before. Her treatment hadn’t worked, her mother was going to care for her instead of getting professional help, and her boyfriend was dead. It is hard to imagine that she was going to be ok – what a bleak message to send.

Jean Kemshal-Bell is an Honours Journalism student at La Trobe University and part of upstart’s editorial team.