Common Archetypes: Incompetent & Uncaring Therapists


OK, so this is basically a discussion post, but it’s more specific: these posts will focus on various archetypes in YA books.
What is an archetype, you ask? Well, if you don’t ask, skip this definition from
the original pattern or model from which all things of the same kind are copied or on which they are based; a model or first form; prototype.
This definition doesn’t necessarily cover what I plan on talking about in these posts, but I liked the title, so archetypes it is. I’m basically focusing on the “model” part of the definition, in that I going to look at various models or types of characters in YA.

Mental illness is a big deal, whether you’re talking about people who really have it or characters that help real people feel less alone. There are plenty of YA books, both those that are considered “issue” books and regular ones that happen to include an issue or two, that deal with protagonists who have some kind of mental illness or have gone through a traumatic event and end up going to a therapist at some point during the book. You’d think that this would be the perfect opportunity to show that it’s okay to open up to an adult in a safe place like therapy – but unfortunately, that isn’t always the case.

There are lots of books out there that prefer to show therapy in their story as a way of further isolating the main character. You know the type – the main character is forced to go to therapy against their will, the therapist just doesn’t understand what the protagonist is going through and doesn’t help the protagonist at all, so the protagonist spends a lot of time complaining and bashing their therapist in internal monologue. And, of course, since it’s the protagonist’s book and not the therapist’s, the therapist really is incompetent and unable to help the protagonist at all, rather than a struggling professional trying to reach a difficult kid.

Now, I know that therapy isn’t going to work for everyone and that not all therapists are going to be great. No matter how much schooling and experience they have, some people are just naturally more sympathetic and empathetic and better suited to the job. You hope that everyone who takes the years and work to become a therapist are these naturals, but chances are they aren’t. There are going to be some people who are better than others, and that’s simply a fact. So, it’s not like all books have to have amazing therapists – but lately it seems like nearly every therapist I encounter is shown incompetent and worthless, which is frustrating and even possibly dangerous.

Let’s be honest: some people need therapy. They can’t handle things on their own, and there’s absolutely nothing wrong with that. Getting the help that you need is important, and it’s good to show this in the books that struggling people might read. And there are some therapists that I’ve encountered that I love – they aren’t always miracle workers and the protagonists that go to them might complain about them, but they’re never demeaned and belittled. Dr. Z from the Ruby Oliver books comes to mind immediately – Ruby doesn’t always like going to therapy and she doesn’t always get along with Dr. Z, but ultimately she grows and begins to heal because she has this person in her life who’s working hard to help her, even if it doesn’t always seem to Ruby like she’s doing anything other than asking questions. There are some other good therapists I’ve encountered, like the ones from Hate List, Nature of Jade, and The Princess Diaries, so not all hope is lost.

But, unfortunately, these therapists can seem like they’re in the minority.

There are a variety of these bad therapists.

First, there’s the stereotypical therapist that the protagonist goes to because someone is wrong in their life (which is why their life is dramatic enough to write about). He or she doesn’t seem to really care about the protagonist, or they do care but they’re too clueless about the supernatural or real issues going on in the protagonist’s life to really be any help. They really might mean well, but they just don’t help at all and they only end up annoying the protagonist. One of the early therapists in Hate List was like this, and the one in The Unbound had shades of this at times.

If there’s one archetype that seems to have it worse, though, it’s the high school guidance counsel. They get all the shitty reputation of the incompetent therapist without any prestige at all.

A big deal, they unfortunately are not.

The protagonists that I’ve encountered often tear these people apart – and, of course, they always seem to be over-eager women who also love disasters because then they have something to do other than be ignored and sneered at by the unimpressed teenage masses at their schools. The guidance counsellors from The Heathers comes to mind, although that’s a movie and the character is meant to be a caricature – the poor guidance counsellors that I’ve encountered are simply mocked and no more than two-dimensional characters.

I’m very unimpressed.

Two books immediately come to mind, although they have quite different tones: Cracked Up to Be and The Education of Hailey Kendrick. The former is a serious book, the debut book from Courtney Summers, who famously writes about unlikable and difficult protagonists; the latter is a more fluffy book that deals with rebelling and learning to be yourself (I think – it wasn’t the most memorable book for me, though not really bad either). The former made me mad; the latter didn’t really make me feel anything at all – other than frustration at their similar portrayal of poor guidance counsellors.

You see, guidance counsellors have difficult jobs – they have to deal the many problems, trivial and important, of high school students, and when they’re not doing that, they’re anxiously trying to get all of their students to look at their future seriously, whether that means college or otherwise. Their job is even more difficult when we have books like these two that put them in such a bad, belittling light.

I can’t remember which one it was (I think it was Parker from Cracked Up to Be), but one of the protagonists of this book loved mocking their guidance counsellor for allegedly “creaming her pants” every time the protagonist deigned to act like she cared. Seriously? You have to be mocking and so damn conceded? So what if she cares? That’s her job – she should be trying to encourage people, and being happy and excited is part of that.

This stereotype makes me want to break out some fighting gloves – and I don’t like fighting or violence at all. This is what you’re doing to me, stereotypes!

Why do we have to stomp on people who get excited, who try to be encouraging in spite of a job that involves a bunch of cynical, sarcastic, and unmotivated teenagers? Why do we have to make readers think that therapists and guidance counsellors are all silly adults who only care about getting what they want?

Therapy isn’t for everyone – but please stop making it seem like it’s for no one, books.

Bottling it all up is bad – seriously, trust me

I don’t have exact links for all the GIFs, but you can find them all at the (amazing) Marina & the Diamonds tag on my personal Tumblr here.

5 thoughts on “Common Archetypes: Incompetent & Uncaring Therapists

  1. Thanks for this – I completely agree! I feel the same about books that portray psychiatrists in this light. I’ve worked with a lot of psychiatrists and they are really nice and try so hard to help their patients. Ugh. I just feel like writing about mental health care workers in this way can be soooooo damaging!

    1. It seems like it’s damaging to mental health care workers as well as people with mental health problems – so it’s hurting so many different people just by including these negative stereotypes! And this is even more personal to me after I’ve been having trouble lately with stress, and it’s frustrating to see people who could really help me in real life being mocked simply for trying to do their job.

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