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Published: June 27, 2017
Eric Mason

Public Faces of Mental Health Professionals

Eric Mason



The Public Faces of Mental Health Professionals


Fractured Public Images

In general, the public often does not have a clear understanding of the mental health profession. The image of the mental health profession, at times, is distorted by movies, television, and other media. Furthermore, there are many fringe therapists, such as natural healers, shamans, tarot card reader, etc., that create further confuse the public about just what mental health professionals do. In addition, the public usually does not understand the differences between legitimate mental health professions, such as social work, counseling, psychology, and psychiatry. In addition, there exists some generic titles, such as “psychotherapists” (which any mental health professional may use), of which the general public lacks insight.

News programs tend to invite mental health professionals to speak on topics that may be the latest craze, fashion, or some “news-worthy” topic, such as the capture of serial killer. When a truly qualified mental health professional chooses to speak on such topics, it can serve the general public. All too often, however, the public has no idea if the individual is truly qualified to speak on the topic.  Although the public may benefit from hearing a qualified professional speak on a certain topic, Koocher advises mental health professionals to be weary before agreeing to speak to media. A professional runs the risk of having his or her words twisted to fit the news program’s agenda.

Media Portrayals of Helping Professionals, Educators, and Researchers

The media may not always have as its first interest the dissemination of accurate information. When the media reports on stories or issues it usually must consider other factors, such as entertainment value, time constraints (topics must fit into neat sound bites that preclude in-depth answers to certain queries). Furthermore, there may be some mental health professionals who quite willingly go along with a news program’s certain agenda and knowingly distort the truth. Although the APA no longer explicitly prohibits psychologists from engaging in sensationalism, it does state that psychologists should not give false or deceptive statements in public venues. In addition, the APA states that members should base their work on “established scientific and professional knowledge.”

Distortions of Psychotherapeutic, Diagnostic, and Research Concepts

Television shows and movies are a major contributor to the public’s confusion about mental health disorders and their treatment. One study found that people with mental disorders portrayed in movies and television shows were 10 times more likely to be depicted as violent. In addition, they are often depicted as failures, unemployed, and victimized. If not viewed as evil or as degenerates, they may be derided for comic relief.

The treatment process of therapy tends to be overly simplified in the movies, as well. This further distorts the reality of mental health treatment. For example, when actual clients don’t experience therapy as it was depicted in the movies, they may become dissatisfied that their therapist was able to cure them in dramatic fashion. Mental health professionals are likely not to be depicted accurately, as well. One study found that 35% of the time in movies they are depicted as crazier than their clients, 22% as highly skilled who almost magically cure their clients, and 22% of the time as almost evil-like characters.

Additionally, in a survey 45 films, more than 50% of mental health professionals in the films engaged in some sort of unethical behavior, while 25% killed another person. The most common ethical violations involved boundary violations. In these films, mental health professionals tended to become highly involved in client’s personal lives.

Various forms of media may often distort research findings. Sound research can become sensationalized or taken out of context by popular culture in order to push a certain agenda or entertain the masses. Psychologist may have little control over how their research findings are later used.

Lastly, all too often, when the media does report on mental health professionals it is when they have committed a crime or very unethical act. This included murder-for-hire plots hatched by mental health professionals, sex with clients, abuse of minors, etc. Needless to say, such reports damage the image of the mental health profession.



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