Love it or hate it, HBO's "In Treatment" has people talking.
The show, which debuted in January, follows the work of psychologist Dr. Paul Westin and his therapy sessions with four patients. It has received four Emmy nominations, including Outstanding Lead Actor in a Drama Series for Gabriel Byrne, who plays Westin.
But more important for psychologists, the show highlights ethical issues in psychotherapy, says Debbie Then, PhD, a California-based psychologist.
At APA's Annual Convention, Then partnered with Robert Simmermon, PhD, an Atlanta private practitioner, to discuss the show's effect on psychology.
Many psychologists are embracing the show and even using it as a learning tool, while others voice concerns. Universities are using the show to teach counseling students, said audience members at the session, patients are talking to their therapists about the show, and others are considering going into therapy because of it. In fact, said Then, "In Treatment" may be helping to take the stigma out of therapy.
Another benefit of the show, said Then, is that it portrays the real issues psychologists grapple with. Westin himself visits his own therapist every Friday and also deals with becoming emotionally involved with a female patient who expresses feelings toward him.
"I think that some people see psychologists as godlike," Then said. "This show is brilliant because it shows him as a real person with real issues."
Some audience members voiced concern with "In Treatment's" portrayal of ethical issues in therapy, especially Westin's relationship with one of his female patients. Another audience member said that the show may give the wrong impression that it takes weeks of therapy for patients to resolve an issue.
Although Simmermon agreed with audience concerns, he pointed out that the show was made for dramatic effect.
"As psychologists we start to go, 'He shouldn't have done that as quickly' or, 'This shouldn't happen,' but we have to be careful about how we confuse truth for fact. We have to remember that the people that are watching these programs look at the power of the dramatic narrative, which I also think can do us some good," he said.
According to Then, one of the most important effects the show has had is that it has encouraged psychologists to open up about ethical concerns.
"Are we flawed as healers? Absolutely," Simmermon said. "I think the more we [take] responsibility, the better we will be at attending to our patients."