Editor's Note: The Asbury Critic is a featured column, which is written and submitted by The Prindle Institute for Ethics Interns. The ideas and opinions expressed in submitted pieces do not necessarily reflect the opinions of DePauw University or The DePauw.
The practice of therapy has always been a contentious subject. Its varied history and seemingly constant theoretical revisions have not helped it in combating the reservations that some still feel about it. Many see this stigma as unjust and so have taken to ‘normalizing’ therapy, promoting it not just as a treatment for those with mental health issues, but as an integral part of self-maintenance. While this may or may not have been successful in having a broad impact on public opinion, the effects of this push can certainly be felt on campuses like DePauw’s. From Counseling Services to classrooms, the rhetoric of self-care and the need for an external mediator for one’s mental health come up easily when we are, and even when we are not, troubled. Therapy has proven effective for many with serious personality disorders and its acceptance as treatment should be welcomed, but there are a few reasons to be skeptical of the movement for universal therapy.
Societal loneliness is on the rise with the Cigna group reporting that over half of adults feel isolated, a trend whose impact is felt more strongly in college students than older age groups. Many traditional sources of community, such as spiritual outings or neighborhood gatherings, are also on the downturn. This means that many people might feel as though they have nowhere to turn to when life gets hard. This may seem disconnected to therapy, but considering the social role the therapist plays makes it clearer. In talk therapy, the client is expected to open up to their therapist about their problems, insecurities, and the events of their lives. This seems to be the same role you might expect to be filled by your peers as a member of a strong community. While proponents might argue that the therapist is uniquely qualified to fill the role of an unbiased, third party to hear a client out, we might ask if that is really the type of interaction that is needed to get to the heart of our problems.
Many of the anxieties that we feel most deeply affected by are personal matters that would be better treated with the advice of people who know us personally. Talk therapy provides the client with control of the brief presentation of themself to the therapist, allowing them, even unintentionally, to distort or obscure their personality. Those we have strong personal bonds with can know us better than ourselves because the majority of us don’t have the opportunity to manufacture who we are to them during the entire relationship. This is how they can provide us with advice that we wouldn’t think of or show us part of a problem we couldn’t bring ourselves to face. In this view, talk therapy seems like an artificial and commercial substitute for the genuine article of friendship and community. Some might object that the therapeutic relationship is different due to the therapist’s unique qualifications, but this seems applicable to acute psychological disorders rather than the struggles of everyday life. Many people want someone to listen to their problems and help work them out, but paying a stranger to play this role can demean the relationship and provide weaker support.
Outside of the social implications of therapy, its lessons by themselves might also be less than beneficial for those of us looking for guidance rather than treatment. While talk therapy is ostensibly about coming to terms with trauma or insecurities and, in recognizing these, overcoming them, the rhetoric that accompanies this process is questionable. ‘Processing’, ‘doing the work’, and ‘reflecting on your trauma’ are all examples of what we increasingly hear when people speak about their personal troubles. While these obviously come from a sincere desire to live better, we might wonder if staying focused on the issues is in fact the way to overcome them. Rumination often breeds depression instead of showing the way out. In place of fixating on what is wrong, it might be worth considering what can be done instead. Accepting flaws and taking steps to take the right actions and be the kind of person you wish you were may sound like Stoic philosophy, but cognitive behavioral therapy has also adapted a similar framework of thought and behavior modification over introspection. While rumination makes us think of ourselves as traumatized or incapable of certain things, accepting our limitations and moving forward teaches us a view of ourselves as rugged, capable people working to be better in our actions instead of searching for the original source of our suffering.
Therapy is, without a doubt, a useful tool for many and should be treated as such, but calls for mass adoption can fail to see its limits. This nearsightedness can detract from the importance of healthy social arrangements and our own self-conceptions. These can address the same problems therapy seeks to treat as well as those it is blind to or occasionally creates. Someone should not feel embarrassed or face stigma for seeking help, but recognizing the varieties of help available is just as important for facing our anxieties and helping others to face their own. Next time you feel like you can’t handle everything by yourself, maybe ask a friend what they think you should do.