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Last Updated: Monday, 20 October, 2003, 10:06 GMT 11:06 UK
Desperation nation - Britain in therapy
By Brendan O'Neill

The renowned British "stiff upper lip" has given way to a quivering lower lip as we increasingly turn to counselling, a new book argues. But has therapy really corroded our national character?

Has Britain become a nation hooked on therapy? "Therapy culture" - the notion that people need professional help to cope with everyday problems and hardships - is widespread in modern Britain, according to a new book.

Professor Frank Furedi at Kent University, author of Therapy Culture, argues that Britain's old-school "stiff upper lip" has given way to a quivering lower lip.

Apparently, outdated ideas about British resilience have been superseded by "a culture of helplines, support groups, counselling services, mentors, facilitators and emotional conformism", where it is assumed that individuals need expert intervention and advice for everything from taking exams to relationship break-ups.

'We are never cured'

Furedi claims that this "on the couch" culture ultimately has a damaging impact on individuals. We are never really cured, so much as "placed in a state of recovery", he says; and our expectations of what we can achieve are constantly lowered by the notion that we need the guiding light of therapy to negotiate life's obstacles.

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Has Britain been bitten by the therapy bug - and if so, how worried should we be? Two of the country's foremost experts in the field of emotional care, have sharply differeing views.

To Susie Orbach, therapy is crucial for individuals who are experiencing difficulties but have nowhere else to turn. "Therapy arises because people don't feel heard by others or by themselves," she says. "In the absence of being able to listen to others as part of normal social life, therapy can help address these difficulties."

Ms Orbach, author of Fat Is A Feminist Issue in the 1970s, was therapist to Diana, Princess of Wales in the 1990s, and reportedly helped the late princess to battle bulimia. Today, she believes there are many underlying factors behind the explosion in therapy and counselling.

"From the individualism of the post-Thatcher years, to the breakdown of community, to the realisation on the part of many medical people that the immune system is affected by emotions - there are many different influences in the rise of therapy," she says.

No one goes to therapy unless they are in extreme difficulty - it isn't an easy choice and it isn't cosy.
Susie Orbach
Ms Orbach rejects the idea that therapy undermines individuals' ability to take control of their lives. Rather, she says, therapy can boost one's confidence.

"No one goes to therapy unless they are in extreme difficulty. It isn't an easy choice and it isn't cosy. People go because their other resources have been insufficient and they need a different kind of thinking space which allows them to reflect on what is troubling them, and to take responsibility for changing it."

Virginia Ironside disagrees. As one of Britain's best-known agony aunts for more than a quarter of a century, she has offered advice to troubled individuals in the pages of the Independent, the Sunday Mirror and other publications.

She admits she spent 30 years having "counselling, psychotherapy, analysis and group therapy". But today she has serious doubts about the worth of such counselling.

Make things worse?

"There is too much therapy around," she says. Ms Ironside believes that when therapy is offered for such commonplace, if horrible, life experiences as divorce and redundancy, it can actually makes things worse.

Criticising therapy today is like saying in the 19th Century that God did not exist - raising questions is taboo
Virginia Ironside
"It makes these events seem extraordinary rather than just the everyday miseries that we all have to endure," she says. "Therapy encourages people to look at the bad and miserable things in their lives, to focus on their misfortunes, which usually makes people feel worse and ends up inflaming their anger."

There is "barely any evidence that therapy works", she says, except for short-term measures such as cognitive therapy. But "there is a lot of evidence that some therapy and counselling can do untold harm".

She dismisses her own experience on the couch as "entirely harmful" "extremely expensive". It did little more than encourage a "poor me" attitude to life.

Counselling that encourages patients to face up to and resolve their own distorted ways of thinking about themselves and the world
"But criticising therapy today is like saying in the 19th Century that God did not exist. There is such a pro-therapy mood, raising questions is taboo."

So to confess or not to confess - how would our therapist and agony aunt advise people to cope in difficult circumstances? Virginia Ironside believes we should cope with the help of friends or family. "Any warm friendly person who can offer them useful strategies. Cognitive behavioural therapists who offer short-term therapy are the nearest people who do this."

By contrast, Susie Orbach criticises "our whole culture, which believes we should be independent". Therapy can be useful, she says, and we should "reject the Thatcherite notion that dependency and relationship are bad, and recognise that they are crucial to life".

Therapy Culture: Cultivating Vulnerability In An Uncertain Age, by Frank Furedi is published by Routledge.

Some of your comments so far:

After struggling with manic depression for nearly 10 years, I was referred to a psychotherapist as medication alone was insufficient. Talking to a counsellor/therapist/whatever has helped me to cope with my condition and my quality of life has improved dramatically as a result. True, the underlying condition is still there. Undoubtedly there are those who would seek cognitive therapy at the slightest problem, the fact remains that it can be invaluable to those suffering from mental illness when other courses of action have failed or existing regimes are insufficient.
Simon Ward, UK

Insofar as one can regard "therapy" as simply talking over one's problems, asking for advice, and being given it by someone who seems to care, then I'm fully in support of it. However, if you're lucky enough to have good friends and family, why on Earth would you want to pay for it? Both my parents were killed while I was at University, leaving me in charge of my younger brother and sister, homeless and virtually penniless. Our family and friends rallied, and continue to rally, in support, and I found no better way of coping than a rather ruthless dissection of our problems, and a grim determination to go on fighting, with their support. I feel I have come to terms with the tragedy far more easily than I might have done had I wasted much time in weeping on a couch.
Freddie, UK

A problem shared is a problem that is easier to cope with, not halved. Talking about it helps you to understand the situation a lot better rather than going over it in your head.
Chris, England

My wife suffered terribly with anorexia and depression and has attempted suicide several times. She had years of counselling, none of it did any good - it sought only to push the blame elsewhere and encouraged her to see herself as a victim. It nearly led to the breakup of our marriage as I was accused of being to blame for her condition. This changed when she was able to receive Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT). This is totally different in its approach. Iit encouraged her to take responsibility directly. It is short term. It is harder. It is productive. The difference in her life is fantastic. I see CBT as being entirely compatible with "the stiff upper-lip" - it is not the same as "bottling it up" - it deals with realities head on.
Anonymous, UK

Is a problem shared a problem halved, or are we a nation of self-pitying wimps?

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