Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Why It Sucks When Your Therapist Character Sucks

One of the awesomest things about the #WeNeedDiverseBooks movement is that people are writing more about mental illness for teens—both sick kids and sick parents. At a time when Mental Health Parity is still working itself out, it’s great that kids can at least go to a bookstore and find someone giving voice to their stories.

But here’s a trend that’s still sucking ducks:

Many of the therapists in these stories are incompetent. I’m seeing it a lot in the works I’m editing but also in books I review, and even among my CPs who know I’m a full-time therapist in addition to being a writer. Either the therapist isn’t really listening, they’re hyper-judgmental, taking the parent’s side, or—and this boggles my mind to know end—they’re crossing boundaries and developing inappropriate dual relationships with their adolescent clients.

It’s not just that lousy therapists have been done to death for years now, though that’s also true. It’s the tropiest trope that ever troped when writing about mental health or addictions.

And, just to be clear, because maybe doesn’t hit home for people who aren’t involved in this field professionally—in real life if a therapist has a sexual relationship with a client they would lose their license. Forever. A license that takes over 1000 hours of unpaid work to earn. A license we pay hundreds of dollars annually in malpractice insurance to keep. And oddly enough during the multiple years we spend shelling out thousands of dollars on tuition, books, lodging, and highlighter pens, we’re actually educated in the fact that fucking people who trust you with their mental health is a bad idea.

Shocking, I know.

But in addition to being not terribly reflective of the real world, when you write sucky therapists in books targeted at teens, you need to remember your intended audience.

When the therapist in your YA/NA novel sucks, it sends the message to teens that they can’t trust mental health professionals. For some kids, particularly those with pervasive mental illness, therapy and/or medication are the only way they are going to recover. Schizophrenia has no cure. Addiction is rarely surmountable without ongoing support from a professional, or sometimes a network of professionals. Untreated depression is one of the leading causes of death for people under the age of 25. 

These are facts backed by research, guys.

And speaking of research, it never ceases to amaze me how writers will embark upon the journey of writing a clinician without ever having talked to one. I’m not suggesting that everyone who writes about mental illness needs to shell out two hundred bucks for an hour on the couch. (For the record, I have never had a couch in any of my offices.) But pick up the phone or send an email. Spend some time on a few websites aimed at psychiatrists, psychologists, therapists, or social workers. (Do you know the difference? If not, you shouldn’t be writing about them!)

Here’s the bottom line: Are there therapists that suck? Yup. I work with a couple. But there are also a lot of excellent, competent professional helpers who are saving lives every day. Substantially more in real life, I’d say, than there are in the literature.

And for the love of fuck, stop writing NA where your main character ends up marrying her therapist. We do not think of patients as romantic prospects. I promise. For us, dating a client is akin idea of marrying a cousin with no teeth.

Be authentic. I’m just saying.

Agree or disagree? Feel free to share your thoughts below.


  1. Totally agree. I have a therapist (actually a PhD intern who's about to become a therapist) in my NA novel, and he's one of the most real and helpful characters I've ever written. Additionally, my character happens to already be married, so no romance there :P He's very clear about the boundaries and is not a happy camper when someone tries to push them.

  2. Totally agree. Literary license shouldn't be used as excuse for failure to research. Good post. Sherry

  3. I love this post! It's always been a pet peeve of mine as a therapist/author, but I never considered the implications for YA/NA readers who might not trust the mental health professionals around them as a result of portrayals in fiction. Thanks for writing.

  4. Thanks for this post! I'm a YA writer as well as a family/couple therapist specializing in teens. Boundaries are so important and I wholeheartedly agree. I have to say that I've read a few recent YA books where shrinks were portrayed well. ODC Love Story by Corey Ann Haydu. Also A Really Awesome Mess, by Trish Cook and Brendan Halpin

    1. Loved A REALLY AWESOME MESS! I reviewed it here: http://dcmorin.blogspot.com/2013/07/review-really-awesome-mess-by-trish.html

  5. I love this post!!

    I have had horrible luck with therapists over the years - finally giving up after a string of REALLY BAD therapists (how I managed to find 4 in a row who advised me that depression would go away if I could just learn to hide my tears from friends and family is absolutely beyond my comprehension!). So when I wrote my MG ms, in which the MC suffers from severe depression and needs to go to therapy, I subconsciously created a therapist character reminiscent of those I've seen. Problem was, my character couldn't work through her issues with that level of incompetence. And I didn't want to send the message that seeking help is a bad thing. So I talked to friends who hadn't had the bad luck I've had, and created a therapist character of the type I really needed when I was seeking help. (From the research I've done, in talking to my friends, MOST therapists fall into the professional, helpful, knows-what-they're-talking-about category. I still don't know how I was so supremely unlucky.)

    1. ((((hugs)))) There are so many factors, Veronica! Location, insurance, licensure, resource filtering, etc. But just like finding the right literary agent or the right hairstylist, it might take some research!

    2. And just like with a literary agent, etc. it's so subjective! The last one I tried had been raved about by several friends. He was absolutely perfect and helpful for them. Yet, the first time I cried in his office (my 4th visit), he told me "If you would just learn not to cry in front of people, everyone wouldn't always be so uncomfortable around you. And then you wouldn't have all of the problems you have." Luckily, hubs was there for that session, to reassure me that the therapist was wrong that time. Lesson learned: don't give up until you find the one who works for YOU!

  6. I'd like to add my OMG stop with the bullshit sex-lust-love patient/ therapist crap.

    If you're writing from experience, that is to say, your therapist made a pass at you, or you entered into a sexual relationship with your therapist, take a break from writing fiction and write a letter to your solicitor, the Board said therapist is bound to and your family doctor - and then start criminal and civil action against your former therapist. That IS NOT how someone seeking help gets well, it is however, what someone without scruples but in a position of influence/power does.

    And if you're writing from pure fiction, you're writing crap... super crap actually, and such super crap that you could stop some other person from seeking help, a human being who NEEDS help.

    I love LOVE Dannie's take-no-prisoner's-no-bullshit style but I especially love this post, because its VITAL that we as artists understand the value of research and the potential impact we might have on our readers.

    I do not read novels where rape is sensationalized, where teachers seduce students or where therapists take advantage of vulnerable patients. A patient 'falling' for his/her therapist during the process; it happens. a therapist who acts or worse, initiates this MUST NEVER HAPPEN - not in fiction and not in real life - UNLESS (in both cases) the bitch/bastard/prick of a therapist is shown to be struck off, sent to prison and sued with less than a $1 remaining to their name - that works for me.

    And if you are seeking help, as Veronica above said, 'find the one who works for YOU' - you need help and you were brave enough to actively seek it. Even if the issue is not a romantic/sexual issue, if its simply a clash of personality, keep the faith while you keep looking.

  7. Thank you, thank you, thank you. Anything that puts a vulnerable teen off the idea of engaging with professional help when it's needed is dangerous. Habits and attitudes about health care developed at that age can colour a lifetime and prevent a person being truly happy.