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New Jonah Hill Documentary 'Stutz' Shifts Narrative on the Therapeutic Relationship

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Editor's Note

This is a review of the film “Stutz.” There will be spoilers beyond this point. Please proceed with caution (because we don’t want to be the ones who spoil you!)

In November 2022, actor Jonah Hill released a documentary film on Netflix called “Stutz,” a tribute to the life and work of his psychiatrist Dr. Phil Stutz. I nestled on my couch with the dog to take it in, knowing that people who follow my work would be asking me for my review. Within the first few minutes of the film I was swiftly reminded of why I love Jonah Hill so much as an actor, as his relatable candor and sense of humor shone through the screen as he set up his initial purpose for making the film.

Hill wanted to honor the life of Dr. Stutz, someone who deeply “cares about” and respects, primarily through presenting his tools and teachings “in a way that allows people to access them and use them to make their life better.” Such an intention could be received as marvelous on its own merit, especially in an era where so many people are not able to easily and effectively access quality mental health care. Yet the real gift of “Stutz” is not the tools. The film is a game-changer because of the focus that it ends up placing on the importance of the therapeutic relationship and on the necessity of therapists to break down their guardedness about getting vulnerable with their patients and with the public. Only when more therapists do this will we be able to eliminate the stigma caused by an us
vs. them
divide that exists not only in society; it festers in the helping professions.

There are professionals out there who are no doubt horrified by what goes on in this documentary. Even as I watched the film I already started hearing the chatter in my head, knowing how people who work as helpers are trained to think: Isn’t this an ethical violation? Isn’t it a dual relationship for an active helping professional to be working as a provider and entering into a business agreement to be the focus of a Hollywood star’s movie? Where are Dr. Stutz’s boundaries being so forthcoming with a patient AND on a major streaming service? At one point Hill even acknowledges the potential “insanity” of this feat himself
when he realizes just how stuck he got making the movie: “Was this a bad idea for a patient to make a movie about his therapist?”

There are those who police the ethics of mental health who would answer Hill with an enthusiastic yes…this is exactly the reason you don’t enter into a dual relationship. Yet consider that many of the national ethical codes that govern the major helping professions (e.g., psychology, psychiatry, mental health counseling, social work, marriage/family therapy) do regard the debate around dual relationships to be a potential grey area. There are of course some boundaries that must never be crossed, like entering into a sexual relationship with a client/patient or their family members. Hill and Stutz even make a joke about this at some point in the film. While it’s clearly a joke and plays as such, I anticipate that some critics are sounding the alarms. With many other instances of dual relationship, if there is some greater benefit from blurring the lines of a dual relationship, as long as the client/patient is fully consenting and the potential risks and benefits have been talked out and acknowledged by the client, they are not completely forbidden. It’s evident to me from watching the film that Hill and Stutz clearly engaged in these dialogues, even letting us into one. Moreover, with this being a Hollywood movie, we can assume that legal paperwork was signed and proper informed consents were in place.

While appropriate therapeutic boundaries are necessary for good therapy to take place, especially when a provider is first getting to know a client, I contend that helping professionals are too guarded. We want to present ourselves as people who have our shit together so that our clients take us seriously, all the while not recognizing how censoring our humanity so much may be doing more harm than good to the therapeutic process. Especially with trauma survivors. Helping professionals can also be extremely cautious about discussing their own struggles with mental or physical health publicly outside of the context of therapy, fearful that they will be regarded as less professional or credible if they are truthful. Fortunately there’s been a small and fledgling movement to change this in recent decades, starting with highly regarded psychologist Kay Redfield Jamison’s “An Unquiet Mind” (1996) about her own struggles bipolar disorder. More and more of us, especially in the dissociative disorders community, have come out about our own struggles and humanity and are encouraging others to do the same when they feel prepared to do so.

“Stutz” presents some amazing examples for how we can embrace our own vulnerability as a strength and to take care of ourselves in the process. Hill reaches an impasse when, in discussing the tools, Dr. Stutz brings up the death of his brother. When Stutz asks Hill if he wants to discuss the death of his own brother Jordan (who died suddenly in 2017), Hill initially shuts it down, at least for the film. Yet when they discuss it in a later clip, with Hill protesting, “I want this movie to be about you,” the two of them engage in a poetic discussion about vulnerability. After Hill discloses that he was beating himself up for wanting to do the film perfectly and give Stutz the spotlight, Stutz replies with, “If you could do it perfectly than it would contradict everything that we are doing here…the driving force in this whole thing, to me, is your vulnerability.” Hill eventually concludes, “How can I not be vulnerable myself?” in the project, and once he makes that connection, the film opens up to even greater dimensions of beauty, poignancy, and insight.

Indeed, Hill is paying tribute to his beloved psychiatrist and his work by the two of them mutually deciding to be vulnerable with each other and see what unfolds. It’s clear that such a decision could be made only after a foundation of safety and trust was established. And the two of them could clearly have open and honest dialogue, which is an important container for vulnerability to flourish. Yet taking that step into vulnerability always comes with a degree of risk, and when Hill was willing to do that in this film, an even greater case was made for how we can model vulnerability with each other in the therapeutic relationship. Hill eventually goes there about his brother’s death. And what touched me the most, as someone who relates to his struggles so deeply, was Hill’s own candid discussion with Stutz about Hill’s struggles with body image since his early adolescence. These powerful disclosures are juxtaposed with Stutz’s own sharing about his Parkinson’s disease, his family of origin trauma, and his struggles in relationship. The relationship they established even before the film was made facilitated such powerful conversations that impacted each other’s process.

Such mutual vulnerability in the context of a safe enough and trusting relationship is what we need to do better therapy and to smash the ugly stain of stigma that exists in the helping professions, especially towards people with major mental illnesses. I admit that some necessary groundwork needs to be done before a therapist can disclose to the level that Stutz does, both to his patient Jonah Hill and for the public audience. And part of why Stutz may feel comfortable doing this is that he is 77 years old and already well-established. It can certainly feel riskier for younger helping professionals who’ve been so ingrained in modern graduate training, which promotes guardedness and may take boundary work too far out of fear of ethics violations and lawsuits. These conundrums over how much we as helping professionals reveal and in what contexts certainly cannot be resolved in the course of a short article.

Yet I have learned, after completing extensive interviews for my latest book project “Dissociation Made Simple: A Stigma-Free Guide to Embracing Your Dissociative Mind and Navigating Life” that the therapeutic relationship, more so than tools or techniques, is of utmost importance to trauma survivors, especially of those who struggle with dissociation. And we as therapists showing our humanity, which can be done transparently while honoring boundaries, is paramount. Alexis, a woman with Dissociative Identity Disorder (DID) interviewed for this project, “If I don’t trust you [the therapist], I’m not going to talk to you.” Erin, a woman with complex post-traumatic stress disorder and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) who is prone to dissociation, punctuates, “Don’t be there to fix your client and think your some sort of dissociative client whisperer. Just show up. The relationship is most healing, I don’t care what modality you are using.”

In my overall review of “Stutz,” as a therapist, I do not find anything radically revolutionary about his tools. They represent a solid blend of Jungian, Gestalt, and dialectical behavior therapy (DBT) skills and work with guided imagery and meditation in a parts-sensitive manner. Yet what’s clear to me as these tool work for Jonah Hill as taught to him by someone who clearly has shown up for him, and that’s what really matters. That phenomenon is what the world needs to see more of if we are going to change our view about mental health and therapy. Such media presentations of mental health are also vital for dismantling the still pervasive stigma that people who seek therapy are somehow flawed and defective and that those who provide therapy have it all figured out.

Nothing could be further from the truth, and I thank Jonah Hill for taking the risk as a major Hollywood actor to help shift this narrative.

Image via Neflix’s YouTube

Originally published: November 28, 2022
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