Frank Furedi

Professor of Sociology at University of Kent, and author of Politics of Fear, Where Have All the Intellectuals Gone?, Therapy Culture, Paranoid Parenting and Culture of Fear.

In two minds about therapy
Tom Geoghegan

A new play which suggests therapy may increase dependency has reignited the debate about whether it makes people more needy. As more Britons than ever before seek counselling, many are in two minds about talking over their feelings.

Forget the famous British stiff upper lip - more people are opening up to talk through their problems with a professional.

The number of qualified counsellors has tripled in 10 years to keep up with rising demand. And January is the peak period for sessions as people reassess their lifestyles, according to charity Drugscope.

A society becoming more mobile, detached, stressed and divorce-ridden is blamed for the rush to the couch, underlined and encouraged by celebrities such as Robbie Williams speaking openly about their therapy.

Although widely held as a cause for celebration that the British are no longer bottling up their problems, there is scepticism in some quarters.

Therapy can become an addiction in itself, says Alice Kahrmann, 23, who has written a loosely biographical play called Powerless, which opens on Friday in London. It tells the story of two people who try to break free from the rigours of treatment.

Ms Kahrmann had an eating disorder for five years and went on a 12-Step treatment programme, an approach popular all over the world with groups such as Alcoholics Anonymous. But she says she merely substituted one addiction for another.

"The way the programme works isn't about empowering the individual but becoming dependent on the group," she says. "The mentality is that once an addict, always an addict and a 'separation' develops with normal people because drinking and drugs makes them dangerous. You're told that once you will leave, you will relapse."

Fear on leaving

She says the system worked really well for people with drug and alcohol dependency but not for her, because talking about food, weight and image incessantly meant she was living the identity of someone with an eating disorder.

Depression was the root cause of the problem, she says, and she left the programme after six months to seek help - a move which initially struck her with fear. But she tried alternative treatment called neurofeedback and has felt better since.

An Alcoholics Anonymous spokeswoman said the 12-Step Fellowship was designed 70 years ago for people with drink problems and had been successful in "repairing the damage of the past" for thousands of people.

But Ms Kahrmann's experience is not uncommon for people undergoing counselling or psychotherapy, claims sociologist Frank Furedi.

"Therapy does increase dependency," he says. "It distracts people from dealing with their problems and makes them estranged from their friends and lovers."

Counsellors are shaping people's lives, he argues, because "you find you are doing things according to a script written by someone else".

"A lot of people say it works for them but what they mean is they are being listened to and taken seriously by someone. Their problems remain and they go from one therapy to another, on a lifelong quest."

'Diana effect'

He fears the rise in the number of counsellors - and more recently "life coaches"- is creating a needy society encouraged by an Oprah Winfrey culture.

Nonsense, that's just nostalgia for the repressed 1950s, says Phillip Hodson of the British Association of Counselling and Psychotherapy, who is delighted more and more people are talking about their feelings.

"Britain's stiff upper lip has wobbled, if not on occasion broken down," he says, since the public grief of Princess Diana's death.

Counselling has spread because organisations have found it to be an extremely successful and cost-effective solution, he says. It can reduce rates of sickness and absence by half.

"Life has changed since we became a rich country. It isn't about a struggle to survive but we may well be troubled by the meaning of life and where it's going. These are marginal areas of relative pain.

"So in the absence of an overwhelming theology or a paternal family, we look for therapy to help us in a supportive and questioning role. It doesn't just deal with problems, but existential philosophy as well - the meaning of life."

He says 12 Steps does not constitute proper therapy, - although it has "saved the lives" of countless drug and alcohol addicts - because it tackles the effect, not the root cause.

"Therapy is being able to tell a story of your own life and the feelings you've been hiding, so you can address them, put them away and free up your behaviour."

He concedes there needs to be more regulation of practitioners and is critical of the notion professionals can take away pain or heal the soul.

But he scotches the theory that counsellors encourage dependence. "The goal of a therapist is to get rid of his clients."

Powerless runs at Barons Court Theatre in London until 23 January

First published on BBC News Online, 7 January 2005