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 that now.  

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 society.  

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.


horizontal rule



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:


horizontal rule


*Therapy Culture: Cultivating Vulnerability in an Uncertain Age by Frank Furedi