Pop culture has long exerted an influence on our lives, but some might argue that this overlap has unofficially reached its peak. After all, in November, a former reality TV star was elected president of the United States. And, of course, it is now possible for us to play computer games, listen to music, watch movies and stream live TV on a single device that is rarely out of arm’s reach for many of us. Some decry this confluence, stating that (among other things) people have become addicted to the internet and their smartphones and that video games glorify and encourage violence.
But rather than view pop culture as the ruination of society, some counselors say that elements of popular entertainment can actually be used strategically to enhance client-counselor communication and the therapeutic relationship. These counselors — many of whom are enthusiastic consumers of “geek” culture themselves — are turning comic books, TV shows, movies and video games into vital therapeutic tools.
For Steve Kuniak, a licensed professional counselor and private practitioner in Greensburg, Pennsylvania, the idea of using elements of pop culture in practice formed early, inspired by the words of a professor in his introduction to counseling class. “He said that counseling is one of the few — if only — professions where the professional uses themselves as the tool, and so we as professionals should bring everything we are into our counseling in order for it to be most effective,” Kuniak recalls. “That resonated with me, and what I am at my core is a gamer/geek.”
Not very long ago, the term geek had negative connotations and was used to belittle those who were viewed as being “different” in some way — often because they were out of step with popular culture. But now many of the interests formerly associated with geeks are routinely celebrated in mainstream culture, making it hard to define what today’s “geek culture” embodies. Kuniak says that, broadly, geek culture includes a love of video games, comic books, other types of games (tabletop games, board games, collectible card games) and the science fiction and fantasy genres.
For Kuniak, however, what truly qualifies someone as a geek (in the most positive sense) is the enthusiastic degree of interest that he or she shows in something. “It’s not just enough that I watch Star Wars,” he explains, “but rather that I need to know all of the characters’ back stories, I need to understand the philosophy of the Jedi … While I’m at it, maybe I should know how to build a lightsaber.”
Kuniak believes that being a self-described geek enhances his practice. “It helps me to create meaning with my clients,” he says. “If I’m talking to someone about the difficulties of their addiction, they might understand what I’m saying generally, but if I start talking about the ‘One Ring’ from Lord of the Rings and how Gollum ‘hates and loves the Ring, as he hates and loves himself,’ my client might get that imagery more and relate to it better. I can talk about feeling like no one can possibly understand me, and [how] I try to help people, but in my fear of doing something wrong, I end up hurting them, and the client might relate. However, I can relate this to the story of Darth Vader in Star Wars, and now the imagery is more solid.”
Kuniak likes to use clips from The Lord of the Rings and Star Wars as conversation starters in his group sessions, particularly with clients who are struggling against substance abuse issues. “The idea of the journey to destroy the evil Ring, and to have the Ring itself attempt to pull people back into darkness, resonates with this population,” he says.
Another film Kuniak likes to use is The Avengers, which he finds particularly useful in family therapy. “As we see in the film, the Avengers all have unique superpowers and don’t get along because they all want to be the individual hero of the story. Once they put their differences aside, they are more able to stop the bad guys and save Earth. Similarly, I’ll have each family member design their own superhero, [and] we talk about real strengths and weaknesses they’re experiencing. Then we go through The Avengers story, with clips if needed … and we work out how all of their powers work together. We explore how those powers and their weaknesses relate to their real strengths and struggles in the home, and how they can work together like the Avengers to build a stronger family.”
Playing in the virtual sandbox
Kuniak also frequently uses video games such as Minecraft in session as a kind of “virtual sandbox” for play therapy. “I find that video games have such a universal appeal right now that my client population tends to have at least some familiarity with them, and many are full blown gamers” (individuals who regularly plays interactive games). “This isn’t any specific age group either, which is what’s nice. I have clients from 4 to 40 and beyond who make gaming a part of their regular routine.”
“I’ve helped my clients build characters and improve goal setting by making smaller goal steps like they find in their games,” Kuniak continues. “I’ve also used some games that require voice input to help illustrate the point that when you don’t say things well — like when you’re inconsiderate to your parents — you don’t get what you want.”
Gaming proved particularly instrumental in helping one of Kuniak’s clients, a young boy with autism, move forward with therapy. At first, Kuniak says, the boy “was very resistant, and we struggled at getting any headway in his sessions.” Kuniak talked with the boy’s mother, and together they worked out a plan.
Kuniak learned that the boy was particularly a fan of the video game Halo, which requires players to build virtual worlds. Kuniak asked the boy to bring his Xbox video game system to sessions, and they began creating virtual worlds together.
“He was able to begin to talk to me [while engaged in the process],” Kuniak recounts. “Through helping him design a stage in the game, he began to trust me more, and we worked together. He very quickly began talking to me about the game and what he liked about it. He was able to identify that he didn’t like Halo [and other video games] because he got to shoot people or because he liked violence. Rather, he felt like he didn’t fit in at school, and characters like Master Chief in Halo made him feel like he was doing something good by saving the galaxy.
“When we eventually finished our treatment experience, he was able to use his … world at home. I heard back from his mom a few years later that he’d still go into that world and play around when he was having a hard time with things. She seemed to think, and I’m hopeful, that he was using it to remember all the sessions we worked through and the progress we made.”
Lauren Calhoun, a doctoral student in counselor education and supervision at the Chicago School of Professional Psychology and a crisis counselor at Lutheran Social Services of Illinois’ Project Impact and Welcoming Center, thinks comic books can be a powerful tool in therapy.
“Graphic novels [and] comic books … resonate with us [because] they give examples of what we can be,” she says. “While we may never wear costumes and have superpowers, we can see how these heroes overcome obstacles, much like [we do]. They show that one has a choice on how to respond. They also deal with real issues like grief and loss, trauma, injury and belonging. Comic books also give us an escape, but it can be meaningful and aid us in learning about ourselves.”
Calhoun, a member of the American Counseling Association, recently used a graphic novel featuring Batman to explore issues of grief and loss, belonging and feeling “different” with a group of clients who were struggling with serious mental illnesses. She made copies of some of the novel’s chapters and brought them to the group, asking members to either journal about their responses to the chapters or to add their own comic book page.
Group participants were also asked to consider the actions of the characters and to talk about how they might respond in a similar situation. About four weeks into group therapy, participants began creating their own comic books, making themselves heroes or villains and identifying an antagonist. Calhoun says that just envisioning themselves as heroes was extremely helpful, whereas others portrayed their presenting problems as villains that they could then vanquish.
ACA member Emily Dennis thinks that characters such as Batman might prove especially appealing in areas such as college counseling. When she was working with students at the Counseling and Human Development Center at Kent State University, Dennis and a colleague tossed around the idea of creating a group counseling experience based on the iconic superhero.
“We discussed it being focused on increasing social skills and ‘coming out of your bat cave,’” Dennis says. “We even brainstormed a curriculum based on various behavioral levels for group members to advance toward earning a cape. Unfortunately, it never progressed further than our imaginations. … However, I think there’s potential in using characters that clients can connect to as examples in counseling. Batman is one of those characters. There are many interpretations of Batman’s mythology, but in the most basic sense, his is a story of resiliency and the duality of public and private personas, which can be important themes in counseling.”
Batman isn’t the only hero who has inspired Dennis. “Another example of a popular culture character whose story can be meaningful to clients is Harry Potter,” says Dennis, who also worked as a doctoral intern and clinical resident at Child Guidance and Family Solutions in Akron, Ohio. “A few years ago, I had an insightful teenage client who was reading the Harry Potter series during the course of our work together. Luckily, I had read the books previously, and our sessions adopted a sort of unexpected bibliotherapeutic approach. As she progressed in the seven-book series, we processed the themes of love, loss and believing in yourself, and she identified parallels in herself [and] Harry Potter. Despite the magical or supernatural aspects of these stories and characters, the essence of these examples is very human and relatable. It’s why I believe they may be of value in counseling.”
Dennis and Calhoun are also proponents of using television shows and movies as adjuncts to traditional counseling approaches. With one of her groups and in some individual therapy, Calhoun has used Star Wars and the TV show Doctor Who to explore issues of right and wrong and feelings of loneliness and loss.
“I would show an episode or section of the movie, then ask questions for them to journal about and share if they wanted to,” she says. In addition to using favorite characters from TV shows and movies to address major themes in counseling, this approach can provide clients with a safe avenue to talk about challenging issues in their life, she adds.
Dennis has found that TV shows can also make excellent teaching tools in the classroom. Currently a temporary faculty member in the counseling department at Indiana University of Pennsylvania, Dennis recently taught a course on counseling and consulting within systems.
“When I was designing the class, I thought about showing a film that demonstrated some of the complicated dynamics that occur within systems, as well as giving my students a chance to practice creating genograms with the fictional family,” Dennis says. “I remembered that when I was a master’s student, we watched Ordinary People, which is a family therapy classic, but I wanted to push it further and match what I showed them with each of the systems theories we were learning from week to week. Sitcoms provided excellent examples of many of the systems theory concepts I was teaching. I liked that sitcoms were available through the various streaming subscriptions I had, they were 22 minutes or less and not nearly as heavy as some of the content featured in full-length feature films.”
Dennis used shows such as Black-ish, The Goldbergs, Roseanne and Everybody Loves Raymond to explore systems therapy concepts such as differentiation, triangulation and transgenerational patterns. “I created conceptualization worksheets for the students to work on in groups after we watched the episodes,” says Dennis, a doctoral candidate in counselor education and supervision. “My students reported enjoying the viewing and conceptualization activities. I think it encouraged them to think systemically, and we laughed as a class.”
Dennis cautions, however, that not all elements of pop culture can be considered therapeutic. Her school counseling students have been discussing the Netflix TV series 13 Reasons Why, which has become a ubiquitous presence in the lives and conversations of teenagers across the U.S. The show revolves around the suicide of a high school girl. Although Dennis has yet to see the show, she notes that suicide prevention experts are concerned that it might encourage copycat behavior and promotes the idea of suicide as a solution to problems and a weapon for revenge.
“I think it is important to be aware of what our clients and students are viewing or reading and the popular culture characters they idolize, celebrate or fear, especially with younger clients, who have a harder time differentiating reality from fiction,” Dennis says. “I’ve encouraged my students to research some of the popular culture references that their young clients talk about in counseling sessions. Most of the characters, shows and movies are benign, but fear and fascination provoked from characters like those in the video game Five Nights at Freddy’s or the internet meme of Slenderman are worrisome and worthy of addressing in counseling.”
The positive power of pop culture
As a whole, however, the professional counselors interviewed for this article view pop culture as a largely positive influence. Kuniak believes it even has therapeutic value for society at large.
“With all the exposure to heroic belief systems, there may be some transference of resilient ways of thinking and behaving. Because we expose ourselves to so many self-sacrificing individuals in fantasy, we can’t help but learn a little about being good people,” he explains. “Additionally, our individual areas of fandom provide us joy. There’s nothing like that. Just being able to sit down and indulge in something that provides such positive vibes can be great therapy all in itself. After that, we [counselors] need to help people use it all responsibly and take the next steps with it.”
Licensed professional counselor Josué Cardona is a proponent of “geek therapy” and a big believer in the power of pop culture. His website, Geek Therapy (geektherapy.com), started as a place to gather articles about geek culture being used in positive ways, and it now hosts six different podcasts that explore connections between pop culture, mental health and psychology.
“I see geek and pop culture as a celebration,” says Cardona, a former private practitioner in North Carolina who is currently working as a personal and professional coach in New York City. “There is a lot of positivity in communities that rally around their love of something. At a time of such polarized politics, with people itching to fight and so much negativity online, fandom and fan culture is still all about celebrating something. The reason why I enjoy comic and pop culture conventions is because everyone there is celebrating something. There is nothing but positive energy, mostly. So especially today, when so many things seem negative, imagine how beneficial it is to be a part of a group that is celebrating something, anything.
“These groups also help us feel less isolated, and thanks to social media and online communities, we can find people who like something we do, even if the people closest to us do not. In general, this … is beneficial in that it allows for social interaction and healthy relationships.”
Kuniak thinks that all counselors can — and probably should — learn how to use pop culture as a tool in their work with clients. “Most folks are acquainted in some way with the material we’re talking about … and are gaining some of the benefits of exploring geek culture — like the transference of heroic belief systems — without even knowing it,” he says. “The trick is that, at times, we need someone to guide us through that transference process, which is why I think that counselors need to be better acquainted with the medium. The culture is already laying the groundwork. If we speak the language, there’s a potential goldmine for linking in with our clients, building rapport, having a common language and helping them to make change.”
Cardona is planning to publish a “geek therapy playbook” in which he recommends several ways for counselors to integrate pop culture into their sessions. One common-sense approach is simply embracing what clients like and trying to see the world through their interests, he says. Counselors can do this by asking clients about fictional characters that they relate to or even just asking them about their current passions.
“The best insights here come from clients relating to characters and stories, seeing themselves in them and opening up about how they feel,” Cardona says. “It is often easier for a client to explain how they feel or how they see themselves by giving an example, real or fictional.”
Counselors can also use their own passions as a means of helping to explain or demonstrate a concept, Cardona says. “Think using a sports metaphor, [or] using Spider-Man to explain anxiety, or comparing a gaming mechanism to a real-life situation,” he says. “Here, although the client may not be a fan, the excitement and knowledge of the therapist can be more clearly understood and more engaging.”
When counselors use pop culture references in session, they may find that clients enjoy some of the same things, which can create a kind of shared language between them, Cardona says. For instance, when Cardona referenced Spider-Man in a session with a client, it inspired the client to talk about his own love of the X-Men — a passion that Cardona just so happens to share.
“The client was struggling with anxiety, and he said he liked comic books, so I used Spider-Man to explain anxiety,” Cardona shares. “Spider-Man is my go-to for anxiety and comic book characters because his spider-sense is a warning system, much like anxiety, and Spider-Man is one of the most popular comic book characters. I was surprised when [the client] told me he didn’t really know much about Spider-Man, but he loved the X-Men, so I asked him if there were any X-Men characters he really liked and why. He then used his own examples of X-Men characters and events that he thought represented what I was trying to explain about anxiety with Spider-Man. He continued to do this until he found a character — I believe it was Professor Xavier — whom he felt had been through a similar experience as what he was going through.”
Once Cardona was able to tap into that interest, the client went from barely speaking to becoming fully engaged in the sessions. “We shifted to discussing his symptoms in the context of the X-Men and made progress very quickly,” he says.
For counselors wishing to dive deeper into the world of comics, Calhoun recommends the website Comicspedia (comicspedia.net). “It lists several different books by topic or character as well as some ideas of how to incorporate comics into therapy,” she explains. She also suggests querying local comic book store employees if a counselor is searching for a fitting character or comics series to use with a particular client. “I have asked my local shops for suggestions, and most have been helpful,” she says.
Some counselors may like to have clients try creating their own comic books as a therapeutic tool. Helpful apps are available for creating comic books on a computer, but Calhoun says these tend to work best with individuals. In groups, she finds it easier to provide participants with blank comic strips on which to create their stories.
Says Cardona, “I see geek therapy as a mindset, and if I had to simplify it, I would say: Care about what your clients care about. We don’t have to care about gaming, for example, but it is beneficial to the therapeutic relationship that it matters to us that it matters to our clients. This enhances the counseling process in many ways: Counseling is more fun, it helps with rapport, and it can lead to insights more quickly.
“The insights are for everyone involved because I believe that the best way to understand someone is through the things that they love. So when a client talks to you about their favorite things, the things they enjoy doing, the reasons for that can include very telling insights about having related with characters or experiences in those stories.”
Read more about how counselors are using pop culture in their work with clients:
- “Comic books as a bridge to healing” by Lauren Calhoun
- “All things connect: The integration of mindfulness, cinema and psychotherapy” by Bronwyn Robertson
- “Using Inside Out to discuss emotions with children in therapy” by Mercedes Fernandez Oromendia
- “Geek therapy: Connecting with clients through comics, video games and other ‘geeky’ pursuits” by Bethany Bray
- “Geek therapy: Recommended resources”
- “Counseling goes to the movies” compiled by Bethany Bray
Laurie Meyers is the senior writer for Counseling Today. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Letters to the editor: email@example.com
Opinions expressed and statements made in articles appearing on CT Online should not be assumed to represent the opinions of the editors or policies of the American Counseling Association.
I was so excited to see this cover article when I got the new Counseling Today today!
We have a related podcast called “Mental Illness in Pop Culture” at mentalillnessinpopculture (dot) podomatic (dot) com that I think people would also be interested in. We analyze films in terms of how they present mental health issues and professional helping.
Nice combination of information relating to different types of therapy. I do believe that if a client can relate to a theme or some common ground understanding from the counselor, it may be meaningful to the client. When a person finds a common ground, it may have a stronger affect on him/her complying with the changes required to be able to succeed in life, whatever the problem or trigger factors may be.