Updated: Aug 22, 2019
Fact: There are an overwhelming amount of different fabrics, materials and designs just for couches. It's stunning actually. There's a style for every man, woman, and child with access to oxygen. Yes, couches are an endless ocean of medium tempered colors, questionable plaid patterns, and widely varying heat to length-of-sit ratios. Never go leather is what I always say.
I've sat on a lot of couches, is the point, and some of those couches came with a therapist. That raises questions -- Why have I seen so many therapists? What happened? Shouldn't we all have just one or two during our lives? That answer is hopefully, but there is no exception and there is no rule. Not all therapeutic relationships are meant-to-be, and sometimes when things don't mesh, that's the therapist's problem. On the other hand, sometimes, when things click right away, it's because you're with a pro.
Welcome to part 1 of a series analyzing the portrayal of therapists in the movies, for better or worse:
FIRED - Katherine McKay, PhD Candidate (Anna Kendrick) - 50/50
In 2011's 50/50, Adam Lerner (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) is diagnosed with back cancer. The actual cancer's name is long and confusing so we are sticking with back cancer. He's given a 50/50 (there it is!) chance of survival, and is not only dealing with that devastating news, but he's also surrounded by a pretty selfish cast of characters. Adam is not doing well, mentally. So, he makes an incredibly brave, but difficult choice, and seeks out therapy to help him cope with what's happening.
Enter Katherine McKay.
This patient/therapist relationship is broken in the first session, if not the first minute, and it has every thing to do with Katherine. Adam enters the office for his first therapy session ever, to find Katherine, sub sandwich in-hand, totally unaware that she has an appointment. She's just staring at him from the couch that he's about to "have feelings" on, and... she's chewing.
OK, some might think I'm being hard on her, but it just gets weirder. Right after that she doesn't know what to do, and awkwardly remembers to ask him to sit down. Next, she awkwardly explains she is not a doctor, but actually a PhD candidate, even though she just answered to doctor thirty seconds earlier. Then she seems personally offended, and awkward, when Adam comments how she looks young for a therapist. After picking his jaw up off the floor, Adam tries to lighten the tension by asking her if she's "Doogie Howser or something...", but she gets awkward, and won't let him off-the-hook because she doesn't know who Doogie Howser is. Katherine is so very awkward.
I could get over all of that. Maybe the session will move forward more smoothly and Katherine will loosen up and we could start to get to know each other. Instead, she makes the kind of mistakes that would have me out the door before my time was up:
Right away Adam is told he will be apart of her PhD dissertation. Like he's not a person, and simply a specimen to examine and report on.
After explaining how calm he feels, even with the cancer diagnosis, Adam's emotion is invalidated because it's a "common symptom(s) in patients like himself"
Adam gets verbally barraged by a list of textbook symptoms she thinks he should be experiencing
Adam is forced into unwanted personal contact when she reaches out to touch him
SHE TOUCHES HIS LEG!
This, for me, is too much, and I would have walked out. I know it's not much to go on, but it is absolutely enough; her comments and her actions scream stigma. There would be no way I could come back to another session with ANY sense of trust that I was going to be able to get anything real accomplished with this person. She doesn't know what she's doing, and if I'm Adam, I don't have time. I'm not even being mean here; this specific therapist would be a waste of time.
...and listen, I absolutely understand. She's new, she's nervous, and she's training, but you know what, I don't care. Adam shouldn't have to learn that she is new and nervous and training. He shouldn't have to plan his behavior around Katherine's, or worry that he's being analyzed and not heard. What Adam should do is leave, and find a new therapist that can handle what he's experiencing. This is Adam's life, and it's on the line. He needs someone who is ready to work with him and help him. Right. Now.
This is a lesson for Katherine, not Adam. She should use this experience to better herself for her next try. Which begs the question: Do I think Katherine is going to grow, and turn out to be really good at this job? Considering the fact that she actually ends up dating Adam, which is like the biggest no-no in the entire care-provider world, I'm gonna say she wasn't meant for this line of work...
...to be continued
To learn more about mental health's portrayal in the movie 50/50, listen to the Pop Psych 101 episode, Coping With Illness in 50/50
Mike Graham is a mental health advocate, podcaster, producer, husband and stay-at-home dad. He co-hosts the mental health podcast, Pop Psych 101 | Mental Health in Pop Culture