Is counselling a force for social change?
(Or does it work against it?)
by Mark Edwards
Yet another book attacking Britainís Ďtherapy cultureí has hit the bookstands - this time by Frank Furedi, a sociology professor. He adds his voice to those of authors such as David Smail and Jeffrey Masson who have previously suggested that counselling and therapy are not needed by society, and are in fact preventing people from taking action to improve the circumstances that are causing them to have emotional problems.
It may be that I
am doing these authors an injustice by vastly over-simplifying what I
understand them to be saying but here goes. To me, it appears that the basic
premise behind these arguments is that depression, and other emotional
problems, arise out of poverty; poverty arises from social injustice, and
counselling prevents people from taking the necessary political action to
create a fairer and more just society, by turning them into dependent victims.
As one who spent many years slogging round the streets and knocking on
doors to get a Labour Government elected, I donít know whether to laugh
hollowly at this notion, or cry into my Jobseekerís Allowance guidebook.
When I was young I dreamed of a fair and just society, in which all were happy
and depression, always a product of poor housing and low wages, was forever
banished. But as, the song says, I was so much older then, Iím younger than
The notion that
emotional stability is indelibly welded to material circumstances only is
wholly false and one that can only flourish in a society which espouses
material acquisition as the sole aim of life. Our Western, late capitalist
society, in fact. Certainly there is a link between depression and poverty,
but why is it that so many counselling clients are relatively affluent? The
truth is that our society is fragmented; communities have been destroyed and
we are stuck with it. Sources of emotional support such as family, friends or
the Church are no longer available. To
add to our troubles, we are daily sold the lie that money brings happiness,
that working hard brings material reward, and that successful relationships
will naturally follow from all this. To quote from a famous Fawlty Towers
episode : ĎWhat a bunch of ****!
I take the
opposite view to the anti-therapists ; that counselling, done properly, is a
political act and empowers people to make radical changes in their lives. Many
people who visit counsellors and therapists have experienced trauma in their
lives at the hands of those who should have supported and nurtured them -
alcoholic and violent parents, for example. It is just not good enough to say
that such parents are victims of an unjust society; they may well be, and may
have turned to the bottle as a source of blotting out their own pain that this
unjust society has wrought upon them. But how is that going to help the
distressed client, whose problems are very much in the here and now? Blaming
parents and the capitalist system is going to do nothing to help that person
gain a sense of control over his or her life.
But taking on the
role of nurturing parent might. Perhaps that young person has never had their
feelings validated; perhaps they have never been properly listened to in the
way that counsellors are trained to do. The art of listening is not encouraged
in our society, and neither is an attitude of empathy - standing in another
personís shoes. Adversarialism is encouraged - witness Question Time in the
House of Commons.
Being listened to
is in itself very empowering to the person being listened to, because the
message it gives out that they matter. In a society that values people by how
much they can materially acquire, or how much power they can wield in the
boardroom, it is easy for people to fall by the wayside and feel that they
just donít matter, or even worse, donít exist.
I am suspicious of
those who denigrate counselling in terms that suggest it is somehow blocking
the route to a glorious social revolution. It smacks of the same kind of
fantastical thinking I encountered in 1979, when certain radicals suggested
that people should vote for Thatcher, because the resulting awfulness would
provide a catalyst for social change. Well, it certainly did, didnít it, and
we are now surrounded by the human consequences of that change, a massively
growing drugs problem, symptomatic of an over-stressed, overworked, depressed
I have reached an
age now where I see little evidence that society is going to improve very
much. In fact, anything it is getting worse. 80% of crime is drugs related;
one third of people are classified as overweight. Yet all that the Government
can do in response is bleat on about Ďeducatingí people to the dangers of
taking drugs and eating fatty foods. I repeat, those activities are
symptomatic of a depressed people, and the traditional political systems have
become hopeless cul-de-sacs as a route to change.
So, sorry, Professor Furedi and others, but Iíll continue my training as a counsellor, because I firmly believe that it is a far more effective route to social change and it provides a very necessary service for people who basically have no-one else to talk to. That is the reality of life in the 21st century and no amount of academic theorising is going to alter that fact.
Mark Edwards was a headteacher, who still teaches part-time but combines this with writing articles, educational consultancy and entertaining people who like to hear badly performed rock, pop and music hall classics. He still carries a torch for child-centred education and is encouraged by the current interest in emotional literacy and thinking skills in schools. Mark has relocated to Devon with his partner Liz, where he continues training in Integrative Counselling. He is a Master Practitioner in NLP (Psychotherapy). Email: Mark4Ed@aol.com.
*Therapy Culture: Cultivating Vulnerability in an Uncertain Age by Frank Furedi