Group Therapy in Popular Media: An Absurd Reflection

This article is contributed by Barney Straus, LCSW, CPG, FAGPA

If a picture is worth a thousand words, how many words must a movie be worth? It’s hard to quantify such things, but suffice to say that movies are very lifelike and emotionally evocative. Depictions of individual therapists in movies such as Ordinary People and Good Will Hunting, and in television shows such as The Sopranos and In Treatment, show therapists to be caring, attuned people who provide a positive influence in people’s lives. Just think of Robin William’s intensity and willingness to confront his patient in Good Will Hunting. His character is brave, compassionate and committed, and he does transformative work with a very challenging patient.


But how have group therapists been depicted in popular culture? On the whole, group psychotherapists have been shown in popular media to be silly, abusive, or some combination of the two. Recall Nurse Ratched in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. She is downright cruel to her patients. She shames Billy Bibbit in front of his peers, and then threatens to tell his mother about his recent breakthrough with respect to his repressed sexuality. These two abusive actions lead to tragic consequences for the patient.


Jack Nicholson, who played one of the Evil Nurse’s victims in Cuckoo’s Nest, went on years later to play a group psychotherapist himself in the movie Anger Management. In what I suppose is intended to be an ironic twist, the therapist has as much difficulty managing his own anger as the absurd characters he is treating. He yells at and belittles his patients in the guise of helping them work through and express their anger in reasonable ways. The ten-minute long group therapy scene as a whole is a mockery of both the patients and the mode of treatment.


Other depictions of group psychotherapists are equally problematic. The encounter group depicted in the 1969 film Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice is poorly bounded and the participants literally end up “fucking and fighting” during the group. On the other hand, the therapy group depicted in the 60’s sitcom The Bob Newhart Show was presented as simply one more comic target of the sitcom aesthetic.


I am aware of just two depictions of laudable group therapists in movies and TV. One of these is in the movie 28 Days, featuring Sandra Bullock as a patient in a residential treatment center for drug and alcohol addiction. The group therapist at the treatment center encourages her patient to use “I statements” and “feeling words,” two widely accepted interventions. She also encourages honest and direct expression of feelings during her groups. The character is presented as one-dimensional and we don’t really learn anything about who she really is as a person, but she does function to facilitate others’ growth and well-being, a task that is consistent with effective group psychotherapy.


In the made-for-TV movie Shattered Spirits, the social worker helps to move the family out of their denial concerning the protagonist’s (Martin Sheen) alcoholism. She uses a psycho-educational approach by imparting information about the recovery process to the family. As a result of this intervention, the spouse is able to set appropriate boundaries and the children are empowered to seek further support through attending Alateen meetings.


Surely there are other movies and television shows in which group therapy and group therapists have been depicted. My guess is that most of these are mocking of a group approach to treatment, though there may be some flattering depictions of group therapy as well. Popular media is very influential in how we view the world. I hope that increasingly favorable depictions of group therapy will be forthcoming. If you are aware of other examples of group therapy in movies and TV, please feel free to email me so that the conversation can continue.