Changing the Conversation on Mental Health, One Reality Show at a Time

Click  here  to view my perspective (and some others) in this HUffPost video feature.

Click here to view my perspective (and some others) in this HUffPost video feature.

For years mental health and therapy have been grossly misunderstood throughout society and the media, which has created a powerful and dangerous stigma. This stigma associated with seeking help causes many to feel alone or afraid to ask for help when they need it, leaving them overwhelmed and uncared for. Negative stereotypes about therapy propagate a false notion that people seeking therapy are "flawed," "weak," and "attention seeking." However, mental health doesn't only refer to a person's anxiety, depression, or other mental health diagnoses. These experiences are not just personal problems that can be "treated" as you would a medical condition.

While therapy can help a person manage the symptoms of a diagnosis, that isn’t the sole purpose of therapy. Therapy is a place to explore and to learn to understand your authentic self. It’s a place to clarify your values, and learn how to be the person you want to be in your life and relationships. Sadly, the damage has already been done and many people still believe that if they struggle with mental health issues that there is something wrong with them, that they will be prejudged and ridiculed. This can lead to people avoiding proper mental health care and attempting to self-diagnose and self-treat. 

With little public knowledge and awareness, the television and film industry further propagated these widespread and uninformed opinions about therapy and perpetuated many common misconceptions. Looking at the early days of reality TV we are barraged by overdramatic images of emotional outbursts. Therapy was portrayed as a gut-wrenching experience that often appeared more harrowing than the reasons the person sought out therapy in the first place. Fortunately, through personal and organizational campaigns for mental health awareness such as HuffPost’s global project, You Should See Someone, and Reality TV has been Quietly Normalizing Therapy, public opinions have begun to change. These changes have also encouraged production companies and television networks to follow suit. 

Reality TV shows on networks such as A&E and Bravo have taken a bold step towards de-stigmatizing mental health and therapy by filming some of their participants during actual therapy sessions. While this may draw skepticism as to the authenticity of these sessions, in my own experience working on shows like Bravo’s Summer House, I felt they offered a very positive view of mental therapy. We already know that the media we are exposed to and consume regularly affects our day to day lives, so what happens when the people whose lives are playing out in front of us start being open and honest about their mental health? Displaying these real life therapy sessions on TV provides a more personal and relatable perspective to the viewer. It demonstrates the importance of mental health care that corresponds with what we read and hear every day, further validating mental health care. After all, these are people whose lives’ we often compare to our own. These broadcast therapy sessions help set a precedent to the audience: Addressing mental health and seeking proper, professional care is necessary. For a closer look, see what HuffPost's producer, Sarah Burton and senior wellness editor, Lindsay Holmes have to say about reality TV and normalizing therapy.

Could the de-stigmatization of mental health and therapy really be as simple as changing the way it’s represented in the media? It’s certainly a step in the right direction. Seeing others go through similar struggles helps normalize these experiences and helps people feel like they aren’t alone in them. You may not be seeking therapy for something as straightforward as anxiety or depression. You might want to get help with things like unhealthy relationship patterns, self-doubt, imposter syndrome, or feeling trapped in a career. When we highlight people who struggle with maintaining their mental health who then seek therapy in an open and honest light, we educate others who are experiencing their own struggles that this is a normal, human experience.

Humans are fundamentally relational. We exist in our relationships, communities, and sociopolitical environments. The process of therapy is connection first, with another human who helps you feel seen, heard, and understood. Reality TV, when it portrays realistic representations of relatable people seeking therapy, broadcast to millions of people across the digital universe, can help us take the first step in making those connections.

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