In two minds about therapy
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
Although widely held as a cause for celebration that the British
are no longer bottling up their problems, there is scepticism in
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
"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
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
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
"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
published on BBC News Online, 7 January 2005