Jonah Hill's "Stutz": An Argument for Therapeutic Ethics
Jonah Hill's documentary about his psychiatrist/therapist, Phil Stutz is trending on Netflix and social media. Jonah tells us that his therapy with Stutz has changed him on such a significant level, that he wants everyone to have access to the tools he's learned, hence the film. On the surface, this seems like it could be a great idea, and lots of people seem to like it. And maybe I'm being a buzzkill here, but I'm alright with that if it means calling out something that seems like it could potentially be drastically wrong--ie. unethical, harmful, etc.
First and foremost, there are legal parameters around confidentiality and dual relationships that seem to have gone out the window in the making of this film. A mental health professional must hold responsibility around keeping their professional-patient relationships within the frame of confidentiality and that they cannot engage in other types of relationships with someone seeking mental health support from them. These are legal and ethical commitments we are bound to uphold. At the same time, Jonah Hill is not a child, and it's not my wish to infantalize him, so I give the situation the benefit of the doubt when it comes to confidentiality. It's possible that Jonah is using his own agency to make this film, and has legally waived his rights to confidentiality and if so, I get that and can move on. What I can not get past, though, is that Stutz - a psychiatrist - is engaging deeply in different kinds of (conflicting) relationships with Jonah, his patient. And this is deeply troubling.
The film, in part, reviews the tools that Stutz has developed over the years, which has culminated in a book "The Tools" and online groups/workshops that teach these tools. Any article I have read about the movie mentions the book, and frequently is linked to the website where these products are available to purchase. On the website is the product for sale, and the groups for a fee, as well as a link to the film's trailer -- starring Stutz and Jonah Hill -- and to testimonies (also considered to be unethical, even when they are confidential, which in Stutz' case, they are not), which are all from celebrities, including Jonah Hill. It does not escape me that Jonah Hill has become directly involved in marketing for Stutz' products and services at the same time as engaging in a therapeutic relationship, which is, from my perspective exploitative of Jonah Hill as a patient. To really bring this point home, Hill mentions at one point in the documentary that he spends his (paid for) private therapy sessions "lying" to Stutz about how well the film making process is going. This is clear evidence of the dual relationship and part of why the whole situation is so wrong.
As a mental health professional, it's not just the dual relationship and its potential for exploitation (which in my mind is enough), it's also about the therapeutic work. Why is Jonah Hill "lying" to Stutz about how well the film is going? It seems to me that Jonah wants to please his therapist. When therapy is going well, when a relationship develops between a person and their therapist, it's not uncommon for these kinds of feelings to arise. But what we do with them matters. In the same way that we don't make love to our therapist, and our therapists won't make love to us, we also as therapists don't just allow people to please us without talking about it and trying to understand what's happening. But with Stutz, this seems to be exactly what is happening. Furthermore, at one point in the documentary, Stutz says that he has been wishing his tools could be more accessible to the culture at large. I have to wonder if that was directly said to Jonah, and Jonah as a wanting to please, to be a "good" patient, to be loved by his therapist, is helping him to carry out that wish, or even if Hill less directly picked up on that wish and is trying to bring his therapist's dreams to fruition. Hill says that Stutz opens every session with an "Okay, Jonah, entertain me". They laugh together and begin. I wonder if this isn't more than a joke, if it isn't a snapshot of exactly what's happening in the therapy--that Hill is there to take care of his therapist, to make him feel good, to listen to him, to affirm him, to help him be recognized, to love him...instead of the other way around. How much of Hill's therapy really is about entertaining or pleasing or taking care of his therapist--rather than Stutz being able to understanding Hill's emotional needs, which of course, is what effective therapy is supposed to be about?
Looking more deeply at this question, I realize that anytime that Stutz asks Jonah to speak about his own life, he declines. Maybe Hill isn't comfortable sharing his own world on the screen, and that's understandable. But also he discloses that he's spending his private therapy sessions talking about the film. I wonder how much of this film-making endeavor is actually a complete diversion from Hill's therapy. Jonah's needs, feelings, inner world is now completely overshadowed by the therapists needs or by dynamic seems to be playing out between the two. I don't know Hill's relational history, but a major concern here would be the potential for this relational phenomenon to actually be a kind of traumatic relational memory in which Hill's emotional needs for love, care, understanding, attention are overlooked because his caretakers need him to love, care, understand, and attend to them. A serious danger here is the potential that Jonah may be used to focusing on his needed other and meeting their needs in order to build an attachment, a needed bond, the only way that is possible. Maybe he feels deep down inside that he must perform, do something to take care of his adults and that his inner world is and in this relationship with Stutz, continues to be unknown. Not only is this not fair, it could potentially be in fact, a repetition of an earlier trauma. And this, is the exact opposite of what we do in therapy.
It's beautiful that Jonah Hill seems to feel so deeply for his psychiatrist/therapist/needed other. From my perspective, it's an illustration of an innate human striving for healthy attachment and from where all good therapy, and individual growth unfolds. But unfortunately, from my perspective, Stutz does not recognize this and takes a dangerously wrong turn in order to meet his own needs, however unconsciously.
To illustrate this point, I turn to the moment when Stutz is describing his evolution as a psychiatrist and psychotherapist, sharing his outrage when a supervisor advises him to be patient, to wait, to hold back his urge/wish/desire to "help" his patient to feel better as quickly as possible. Of course I understand this sentiment, I think we can all relate to wanting to help someone out of pain. However, I think there's value in listening, learning and being patient exactly so what may have unfolded in the making of this movie does not happen in therapy. Perhaps if Stutz was better able to manage his own feelings about Hill's distress -- to have had his own needs for emotion regulation and comfort met elsewhere, to understand his given power as a needed other to "hold" and contain Hill and all that he had to bring, to sit with his own needs and instead to be patient for Jonah, he would have been better able to recognize what it is that Hill may have needed from him. Instead, I wonder if his rushing in to "fix" or make Hill feel better, he was actually reacting to his own needs and completely misses the point: Jonah.