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“The psychiatrist”, by Carl Josef, c.1930 (WELLCOME IMAGES CC BY 4.0)

Psychotherapy, counselling and the talking therapies were commonly resisted in Britain until the 1980s, seen as American imports, self-indulgent, “touchy-feely” threats to the British stiff upper lip and social reserve. But that resistance melted as GPs experimented with having counsellors in their practices, the media promoted therapy as a friendly venture, and de-stigmatisation generally was challenged as part of the anti-psychiatric and other liberation movements. Universities added counselling services to their provision, recognising age-related problems of adjustment, homesickness, depression and drugs. Voluntary organisations provided relationship therapy, free drug and alcohol counselling, and agony aunts were trusted by many readers. Training programmes in therapy became a booming business and “perhaps you should see a therapist” could be heard as a common suggestion for many of life’s ills. This new confidence in therapists and therapy as “the answer” remains strong in many ways but cracks have begun to appear. One of these is where the assumption that therapists are scientists, or neutral professionals like lawyers or accountants, breaks down. Psychotherapy is an intensely personal, intimate and subjective undertaking in which clients are somewhat confused, vulnerable and often suggestible. The British Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy, recognising that some Christian counsellors were bringing their religious agenda into therapy, took steps to prevent this. Politically motivated therapists are probably not explicitly bringing their agenda into their work with vulnerable clients, but there is an unrecognised issue here that should be confronted.

Therapy trainees are zealous enthusiasts, paying a lot for their training, and often finding themselves in university departments or independent training institutions with one dominant school of therapy and trainers and tutors who may be dogmatic and charismatic. In my experience it is very common to witness fierce and uncritical commitment to therapy and moreover to one form of therapy. This kind of underlying certitude resembles that found in religious and political movements. Adherents become intolerant of or impatient with dissident views, and students who make challenges may be told they are resistant, they are using intellectual defences and are “stuck in their heads”. The onus on therapists to act ethically, perhaps hyper-ethically, leads to their presentation to the outside world as being above all prejudice, influence and abuse. But they can never be free from human nature, and the zealotry underpinning therapy theories is highly likely to leak out, however subtly and unintentionally, into their work with clients. This leakage includes political views, and particularly the leftist and culturally Marxist views with which the therapy world is unwittingly saturated.

To be fair, leftism among therapists isn’t completely concealed and a left-wing affiliation is no crime. However, the tradition in the professional bodies overseeing the talking therapies (clinical and counselling psychology, psychoanalysis, counselling, psychotherapy) has always been to encourage the free association and blank screen of psychoanalysis and unconditional regard of humanistic therapy. Freud himself was reputedly uninterested in politics but some, like the Tavistock sociologist Michael Rustin, have been unashamedly socialist, and no therapists writing about Freudo-Marxism or Red Therapy can conceal their political colours. Some consider therapy revolutionary, and the theorrhea of Lacanian-Marxist Slavoj žižek just keeps coming. But in many ways therapy arose as an alternative to the perceived stale politics and religion of the mid-20th century, indeed as part of the personal-is-political zeitgeist of the 1960s and 1970s. The quest for the real self, self-actualisation, and “psychosalvation” preoccupied many who abandoned organised religion and class politics.
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Paul Atkinson
March 1st, 2018
1:03 PM
Your point is what? Of course a majority of therapists are more concerned with compassion, people’s capacity to relate, to support each other in the pain and difficulty of life than they are in a more “right-wing” empahasis on competition, self-sufficiency, economic success and other alienating life goals. You can call the former liberal or even Marxist if you like but Surely that’s you groaning some axe of your own against therapy. What’s your alternative approach to psychological distress? Why not come out and declare your own politics and prejudices.

Michael McManus
March 1st, 2018
10:03 AM
Excellent. I do wonder about how much influence tutors have on students: my experience has been that what is transmitted is seldom what is received. Perhaps it's more a case of birds of a feather. The major failure is the total lack of an evidence base, other than anecdotal. (Freud made number of colossally stupid diagnoses, and I believe the only people who thought being counselled after 9/11 was any help were the therapists.) Least said, soonest mended - not something you'll find in a counsellors office.

March 1st, 2018
5:03 AM
My therapist of nearly 2 decades severed all contact with me after I refused to vote for Obama. And to think I once blindly trusted her to guide me into becoming an adult. Sheesh!

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