Is It Toxic to Tell Everyone to Get Therapy?

About 30 minutes into “Stutz,” a new Netflix documentary from Jonah Hill, the movie’s slick veneer cracks open to expose a deeper artifice. We see Hill and his therapist, the 70-something Phil Stutz, shot in crisp black and white, sitting side by side in what appears to be Stutz’s Los Angeles office. Hill has long hair and a scraggly beard; he says he’s going to use one of Stutz’s treasured “tools,” and he closes his eyes and takes a deep breath. Then he makes a confession: “I’ve been lying to you in our private therapy sessions.” As he reveals this, the film flips into color and lays bare that they are actually on a set, in front of a green-screen simulation of Stutz’s office. Hill removes the wig he has been wearing to hide a haircut. The film’s initial premise was that we were seeing a single session unfold, but we now learn that it has been filmed over the course of two years — and Hill, in his real sessions, has been hiding his feeling that the project is stuck.

Hill’s mission, announced early in the film, is to spread the healing power of therapy and share Stutz’s psychological tools with Netflix’s enormous audience. But the whole endeavor, he now tells Stutz, has felt “weird and false.” For half an hour, Hill has played the role of a distanced documentarian, interviewing Stutz while dodging any personal questions he received in return — like one about being an overweight kid and the conflict that generated with his mother. “I’m not going to go into it because this film is about you, not me,” Hill says. But the film, he eventually comes to realize, is like therapy itself: It can’t work unless he is willing to be vulnerable and share his own grief, fear and insecurity. The movie’s breakdown, however contrived, is meant to replicate a breakthrough — an opportunity to take a risk, connect with others and move forward.

In today’s therapy-saturated culture, you hear countless messages about what therapy is and what it is for, many of them starkly different from Hill’s. Back in 1979, the historian and critic Christopher Lasch wrote that the New Left had retreated from politics and turned inward, focusing on personal psychological well-being instead of external collective struggles. These days that is funnily reversed: Psychology is often used, especially online, as a way to collectively press others. In some corners therapy has become a kind of social imperative, something anyone can urge strangers to engage in — not so they can explore their own experiences, but so their psychic toxicity can be contained before it spills onto others. Social media is filled with memes and jokes in which people “beg” men to get therapy, or deploy variations of the formula that “men will literally do anything but go to therapy.” On dating apps, being in therapy can vouch for your emotional soundness, while not being in therapy may be considered a red flag. Articles suggest, in the words of one writer, that “therapy could be the secret to a flourishing love life.”

These competing images of therapy — one personal, the other social — each stem from the basic assumption that therapy can do a lot of people a lot of good, and from the impulse to share it widely. The version we see in “Stutz” is based largely on self-exploration; by revealing the parts of ourselves we often hide, it suggests, we come to know ourselves more deeply and live our lives more fully. (Hill says he originally came to Stutz “out of desperation to get happier,” having “no healthy self-esteem” despite his wild success in Hollywood.) Therapy as a kind of social credential, meanwhile, is more about proving to others that you are safe to engage — that your projections, defenses and unresolved traumas won’t hurt those around you. One is akin to cleaning up roadside litter because you think it’s the right thing to do; the other is like slipping on a fluorescent vest and picking up garbage because a court so ordered.

It did not take long for therapy to go from a social taboo to something very much out in the open. The pandemic only furthered this shift, leaving countless Americans alone (meaning, for some, in bad company) amid incessant talk of mental health and an ever-growing bombardment of content taking therapy to the masses. Young people have been especially hard hit: In 2021, 44 percent of high schoolers reported persistently feeling sad or hopeless. No wonder that young people have also seemed especially receptive to absorbing the ideas of therapy into their lives and their lexicons — speaking with casual familiarity about triggers and traumas and diagnoses.

On “therapy TikTok,” therapists amass millions of followers, to whom they offer tidbits and buzzwords about things like attachment styles. Pop stars like Ariana Grande and Demi Lovato serve as spokespeople for teletherapy companies. Other celebrities incorporate mental-health awareness into their work. The singer-actor Selena Gomez has released a documentary, “My Mind & Me,” about her own mental illness; in September, the rapper Megan Thee Stallion introduced a mental-health website linked to her album “Traumazine,” which features a song called “Anxiety” (“I’m a bad bitch, and I got bad anxiety”). Divulging mental-health struggles has become routine among pop figures, a way of both connecting with young fans and offering a message that it’s OK to seek help.

And yet high-quality psychotherapy remains staggeringly expensive and hard to find. According to the American Psychological Association, six in 10 psychologists say they don’t have openings for new patients. (My own therapist’s website says there’s a waiting list for teletherapy.) Reading about therapy on social media, I came across a popular post from the writer Casey Johnston, who summed up the search for a therapist like this: “Finding a therapist is simple, just contact 50 people, 25 are no longer in network, 15 don’t answer, 5 have switched to $600/hr life coaching, 2 don’t like your vibe, one now only does pets.” The shortage is especially acute for professionals who work with children and teenagers.

In lieu of access to actual therapy, we seem to be inundated with content about therapy, as though its material scarcity creates an urge to spread the gospel by other means. You can devour never-ending media feeds promising tools to help process trauma, techniques to regulate emotions, tips for setting healthful boundaries. But something crucial to therapy feels missing when we’re absorbing these ideas passively, in solitude.

What Hill came to realize while making “Stutz,” after all, is that his true subject isn’t his therapist or the tools he has learned. The real action is found in the sui generis nature of the patient-therapist relationship itself — one that is vulnerable, endearing and genuinely moving to watch. Those of us doing the watching are mere viewers engaged in a risk-free parasocial relationship, connecting to someone else’s connection. Hill had to confront the fact that therapy is irreducible to a set of abstract tools. This is something different from any of the millions of articles or TikTok videos offering, say, nine tips for handling a narcissist. All the therapy content online helps to demystify something that long operated behind closed doors, but it also underlines a new problem — that many of us are facing these challenges alone.

Source photographs: Netflix

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