A magazine for friends of the Warren Alpert Medical School of Brown University.

Script Doctor to the Rescue


A psychiatrist advises patients and screenwriters.

By day, Stephanie Hartselle F’12, MD, is a clinical associate professor of psychiatry and human behavior at Brown with a private practice in Providence. By night, she’s a superhero—saving TV and film scripts from insensitive and hackneyed depictions of mental illness and therapy.

How did you get involved in this work?

I’m a media spokesperson for the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, and sometimes I’ll speak about social media and streaming programs that portray mental illness in a less-than-dignified way. Through that work, I was contacted by a director who works for Sundance. I also lecture first-year medical students and tend to use movie clips to demonstrate how personality disorders or different types of episodic mood disorders can be portrayed well or mistakenly. One of the students I taught happened to be close friends with a producer.

What kinds of projects have you consulted on?

I either get sci-fi or comics. It’s not the genre I watch. The first large movie I consulted on was about [the DC comic character]Harley Quinn. But all I knew was that it was called Birds of Prey. I remember turning to my husband and saying, “I think they want me to consult on a bird documentary.”

How does your psychiatric expertise come into play with these fantastical storylines?

I typically consult on how character personalities would develop. So for example, they might ask, “How would this kind of trauma affect a child who grew up with no parental kindness or warmth?” I have to do a lot of research to figure out whether a personality disorder could develop and how that might play out in front of a camera. Everyone has been very interested and respectful of the thoughts I have to share.

Do you have a particular pet peeve when it comes to onscreen depictions of mental illness and its treatment?

The portrayal of therapists, clinicians, and physicians in dynamics that are absolute breaches of our ethics. Romantic involvement with a patient comes up a lot. I consulted on a script once where a therapist was also best friends with her patient. I kept saying, “This cannot happen.” It’s unethical to show this and not comment on how it’s inappropriate.


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