By Kirsty Thomson
Over the last few weeks, the internet has seen Sarah Brady, a semi-pro surfer talking about her experiences while dating well known actor Jonah Hill. The pair dated for just over a year, throughout which Sarah has said his behaviour and his attitude towards her and their relationship shifted into something sinister.
MICHAEL OSTUNI/GETTY IMAGES
There’s already been loads of coverage about the he-said-she-said, including any deep dives into their relationship, but on of the main issues has become the way in which he talks to her and the nature of the language he uses. In his messages, Jonah puts the onus and the responsibility of the relationship breakdown onto Brady. He uses ‘therapy speak’, presenting his controlling behaviour as an endeavour to ‘set boundaries’, a term commonly used by therapists with their clients to ensure that mentally damaging situations are kept at bay. It's by no means the first time we have seen coercive and controlling partners weaponise the language of a mental health crisis, nor will it be the last time we see someone justify their heinous actions with their mental health. However, it does beg the question: is our attitude of sending problematic men to therapy the right thing? Is therapy making these men worse? Can someone have ‘too-much’ therapy?
It’s important to quickly get some definitions established before we delve into the bigger picture with this whole situation. In his texts, Hill references boundaries a LOT, but what are they in a therapy context? Boundaries, as defined by therapists, are the limits and rules we set for ourselves in life. Within relationships, this can be things like saying “no” to others when they want to, feeling comfortable opening themselves up to intimacy and close relationships, and the ability to communicate the things you need and want. Boundaries are things related entirely to your behaviour and as such are not things that you can enforce on other people. The moment you start imposing upon or limiting someone else's behaviour, you’re no longer ‘establishing boundaries’ but instead ‘inflicting control’.
There is no denying that in some cases, rather than changing someone for the better, therapy can give someone the tools to justify and carry out bad behaviours. In situations where a person with a high view of themselves goes through the process of therapy, they can often emerge with a massively inflated sense of self-importance. That’s not to say that therapy is inherently bad, but in the wrong hands it can equip people with the mindset and language needed to gaslight or persuade others to succumb to their demands.
In recent years, we’ve seen amazing progress made within the field of mental health. More and more people feel empowered to come forward with their struggles and access help, but this progression has been massively stained by both our society’s misunderstanding of what therapy is, and the ways in which therapy and mental health is talked about. It makes absolute sense that with an increased number of people going to therapy, the syntax and terminology previously confined to the doctors room has made its way into the vocabulary of the everyday. Our rising shared interest in mental health means that it is the discussion of the everyday, and whilst it's massively important that people are able to be transparent and open with their experiences, the more we use something the more we detract from it’s meaning.
Take swearing, for example. The more often we use a word, the more meanings it takes on and, like a game of whispers, this word that once had a very specific definition and had with it a very automatic societal response is entirely different. Shared language is so important because of it helps us better understand ourselves and experiences, but the streamlining of what we say means that the original meanings and contexts of words kind of fades out.
Whilst we may understand that saying things like ‘oh I’m so OCD’ or ‘what a schizo’ are massively inappropriate and detract from the realities of living with mental health issues, it’s not as clear cut with more nuanced terms like ‘boundaries’ and ‘gaslighting’. It doesn’t help either that with it becoming more commonplace, we have created an environment where therapy has become a barometer for determining whether or not someone is a good person, particularly with men. Sold as a tool for self-improvement, therapy has grown into a morality blanket and is seen as this ‘cure-all’ remedy to fix even the most problematic people. The reality is, therapy is almost entirely about the work that happens outside of that doctors room.
You can boil this whole situation down to attitude. Therapy isn’t what resulted in Brady’s abuse because it was directly caused by Hill’s attitude. The therapy has just emboldened him and given him a reason to think he’s justified. Looking at his messages, he uses the emotional leverage of their romantic connection to try and control Sarah’s personal and professional life. His language isn’t speaking to his feelings of insecurity or the things he is looking to proactively improve, but instead just call out the things he doesn’t approve of his partner doing. He incorporates therapy speak into ultimatums and demands which allow him to try and skew the lines on whether or not he is being coercive and controlling. (Spoiler, he absolutely is). Hill has created a dynamic where he is asserting dominance and superiority over his partner; he intimidates Brady by positioning himself as this pinnacle of morality and as such is putting rules and limitations on her behaviour. The problem here isn’t therapy, its the engrained teaching of policing women.
There’s a reason why these texts have resonated with so many. Marginalised communities, whether that be based on gender, disability, race or class can recognise immediately what’s going on here because they understand the reality of what it means to be constantly policed and controlled just for existing. Online discourse of people (by in large men) seeking to justify Hill’s actions point to just how deep the misunderstanding and teachings go. Our lack of understanding on what these words mean paired with the very real issue of internalised misogyny and toxic masculinity faced by SO many means that we’ve created a powder keg where these situations are a time bomb waiting to happen. Where, if anywhere, can we go from here?
Is there such a thing as having too much therapy? No, of course not. What matters is the attitude and expectations you have going into therapy. Should we stop men going to therapy? Absolutely not, if anything we should be encouraging them to feel empowered enough to discuss and work through underlying issues that might cause them to behave a certain way. Is mental health something we should brush back under the carpet? No, we are in 2023 not 1880 and giving people the ability to talk about their experiences is power. And finally, is therapy at fault for all of this? No, Jonah Hill is just a twat who has never been taught how to respect and treat women.