We need to see more psychotherapy in fiction


Hannah (Ashley Benson) from Pretty Little Liars having a psychotherapy session in season 2

Why don’t we see much psychotherapy in fictional works?

I surmise we mistakenly believe that a fictional character going into psychological therapy doesn’t make for a good story. Talk therapy, the most known form of psychotherapy, doesn’t generate much imagery or movement. And besides the common thinking that a well-adjusted character isn’t all that exciting, we also expect him to resolve his issues in an organic way.

A depressed, self-defeating Holden Caulfield who has a futile yearning for purity finds it in a child.

Luke Skywalker with the daddy issues redeems his father by putting his own life on the line.

Liz Lemon, who hides her insecurities using an overdose of self-deprecation and hyperfeminism, finds love in an unexpected place and comes to accept she deserves it.

Of course, narratives like these often stop there. They don’t show how character development remains a work in progress even after a seemingly clean resolution.

In real life, “organic resolutions” to internal conflict rarely occur in such a well-written fashion. For example, sometimes a person with parental issues never meets one of his parents for closure.

What psychotherapy does is give the power of processing and resolving these internal conflicts back to the person. Using tools like talk therapy and creative pedagogy, a person undergoing therapy learns to own his emotions and issues, process them in a healthy way, and progress through life with the knowledge that emotional well-being may be a lifelong commitment — and that he has some degree of control in achieving it.

But how do we make psychotherapy watchable or readable without it coming off as corny?

Some, like Grey’s Anatomy (particularly during Meredith Grey’s sessions on her parental issues and Derek Shepherd’s death) and Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, have used editing tricks such as flashbacks and music interspersed with therapy dialogues to make it appeal to the senses.

Of course, I call that a candy-coating strategy, which is great for TV and film but not always applicable to other fictional forms, such as text.

My challenge to storytellers in this age is to convey psychotherapy, which is becoming more relevant along with other dimensions of mental health, in their fiction and to make it interesting to the audience. Of course, the first requirement is to portray it accurately — and the world already has a wealth of resources to draw from. That means portraying not just the well-known form of psychotherapy (aka with the client lying on a sofa and the therapist asking “How do you feel?”) but other forms as well such as art therapy.

Storytelling has always been about making the unseen perceivable — and psychotherapy is just another challenge I’m sure the truly skilled and empathic storytellers can handle.

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