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Dream Analysis: Juniata Psychology Professor Finds Research Topic in TV Shrinks

(Posted February 27, 2006)

Mark McKellop, assistant professor of psychology, says psychotherapists portrayed in films and on television can act as models of ethical behavior, unless the plot takes them in another direction.

HUNTINGDON, Pa. -- As it turns out, putting a mobster on the couch can get you praised, and eventually, professionally whacked by the American Psychology Association.

The fictional psychiatrist Jennifer Melfi, played memorably by Lorraine Bracco in the acclaimed HBO television series "The Sopranos," exhibits highly ethical behavior that would make any psychotherapist proud (and garnered the character a "Golden Psi" award from the association -- only to have the association distance itself from the award when the character became darker) -- at least until the middle of the second season, when the series writers decided to make Melfi's plotlines more dramatic.

According to Mark McKellop, assistant professor of psychology at Juniata College, "The Sopranos," which starts airing its last season on HBO March 12, shows excellent examples of ethical behavior by Melfi and in later episodes of the series, by the Melfi character's own analyst, played by former director Peter Bogdanovich.

McKellop, who is a clinical child psychologist by training, has started a new research program at the college focused on how psychologists and psychiatrists are portrayed in popular culture, specifically movies and television, and whether the behavior of fictional analysts is perceived as ethical and proper.
"My students are always surprised when they see the ethical guidelines for the psychology profession is 16 to 20 pages long, single-spaced," says McKellop.

McKellop says the American Psychological Association also is interested in how the profession is portrayed in the media. There is a subdivision of the association's professional committee that evaluates the profession's media exposure.

McKellop, who has plowed through four seasons of "The Sopranos" on DVD (all without incorporating "bada bing" or "whack" into his everyday speech), says Dr. Melfi's professional behavior was nearly unimpeachable in the first season.

"One of the things she excelled at was treating Tony as she would any other patient," McKellop says. "Physicians and mental health professionals are duty-bound to try and provide help for people regardless of what they have done. She meets this guy who has an extreme criminal past and treats him like any patient."

McKellop also praised Dr Melfi's ability to remain professional when faced with provocative or insulting repartee from the mob boss. "She also did a great job telling Tony that patient confidentiality has its limits," McKellop says. "Essentially she tells Tony if he reveals that he killed five people over the weekend, she is obligated to turn him in."

However, McKellop says the Dr. Melfi character changed over the course of the show and now her professional ethics are somewhat murkier. Among the ethical sins: She has confessed a sexual attraction for Tony, a therapeutic no-no, and she has considered using her relationship with the mobster to avenge a sexual assault, another unethical move. "As she became a popular character, the writers had to find more for her to do, and after a while therapy isn't exciting," he explains.

McKellop also praises the professional ethics shown by another therapist in "The Sopranos," Dr. Elliot Kupferberg, played by Peter Bogdanovich. That character essentially reins in Dr. Melfi's less professional urges.

McKellop's research does not just focus on New Jersey Mafiosi. This semester he created a student research project for his clinical psychology course on the Oscar-winning film "Good Will Hunting," in which a therapist, Robin Williams, treats a troubled but brilliant young man, played by Matt Damon. "It's interesting to look at 'Good Will Hunting' because it's an acclaimed movie, which is sort of an endorsement for what happens onscreen," he explains. "In fact, there's a real mix of ethical and unethical therapy in the film."

Although he has yet to analyze the data. McKellop says students tend to condemn ethical behavior that does not conform to standard images. "There's a scene where Robin Williams takes Will out of his office to talk by a pond and the students were really bothered by that," McKellop says. The students also forgave unethical behavior if it served the context of the movie. "There's a scene where Robin Williams grabs Matt Damon by the throat, and the students felt that was OK because the therapist was provoked. Students sometimes don't realize that therapists rely on a higher code of ethics, and you can't just take someone out back and choke them," he says.

He also found that student favor harsher penalties for ethical transgressions. "When I asked what should happen to a character who's done wrong, students have a tendency to drop the hammer and recommend that the therapist should be kicked out," McKellop says. "In reality, most professional associations will give people a second chance."

Contact John Wall at wallj@juniata.edu or (814) 641-3132 for more information.