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We’re all mental

Anna Bluston says many of us will have mental health problems and talking therapies can help

Mental health has undoubtedly become one of the most important, contemporary issues for both the individual and society. However, there has long been controversy over the management of a small minority of people with chronic mental health difficulties requiring medical treatment or hospital care, and their stigmatisation, but also the way the less severely afflicted out-patient majority seek help for their mental difficulties. The recent boom in ‘talking therapies’ such as counselling, psychotherapy and cognitive behavioural therapy, has led to confrontation between two views. Those who believe that a healthy society deals with its emotions, feelings, and psychological difficulties, enabling a healthy, functioning open behaviour, and those who believe that this approach results in an ‘emotionally incontinent’ society with unnecessary focus on trendy, touchy-feely attitudes when a ‘stiff-upper lip’and getting on with it would be much better for the individual as well as society as a whole.

Frank Furedi, Professor of Sociology at the University of Kent, appears to share the latter view. His book Therapy Culture: Cultivating Vulnerability in an Anxious Age, is highly critical of what he calls the ‘therapy culture’. He argues that Western society encourages a sense of ‘victimhood’, and argues that people are encouraged to use the language of ‘psychobabble’ in endless self-indulgent introspection, having made a culture of therapy.

In the extract from his book published in the Daily Mail, Furedi also criticises the culture of compensation, with people wanting to sue for anything going wrong, and total abregation of self-responsibility, and unwillingness to take risk and blaming everything as someone else’s fault. Furedi is surely on strong ground here. But linking this to the need to get help for emotional distress is a ridiculous comparison between two entirely separate issues.

According to statistics from the Mental Health Foundation, 1 in 4 people will experience some kind of mental health problem in the course of a year. 1 Up to 1 in 6 people will have depression at some point in their life. Depression is most common in people aged 25-44 years. Additionally, 20 % of women and 14 % of men in England have some form of mental illness.

The total cost of mental health problems in England has been estimated at £32 billion. More than a third of this cost (almost £12 billion) is attributed to lost employment and productivity related to schizophrenia, depression, stress and anxiety. Over 91 million working days are lost to mental ill health every year. Half of the days lost through mental illness are due to anxiety and stress conditions.

These statistics clearly demonstrate that, unlike the media mythology, mental ill health, far from being a rare affliction – e.g. ‘nutters’ who will murder children if they are not kept locked up - actually affects a significant proportion of the population, across all social and economic boundaries. It would therefore seem logical that the adequate provision of professional services for those with mental health difficulties are vital, and, far from aiding self-indulgence, are necessary for the well-being of much of the nation.

The British Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy (BACP) has strongly criticised Furedi, in their article in October 2003 ‘Why is Frank Furedi so furious with counselling?’ they argue that ‘many people in our society are suffering from real mental distress and counselling is a proven remedy.’ They explain that a study summarised in the BMJ on 2 December 2000 shows that the most effective help for most depressions (ie those lasting less than a year) is counselling.

Another cogent point they make, is that ‘Furedi represents an extreme range of worry about the ‘spread’ of counselling and psychotherapy but this quickly appears to merge into unreasonable nostalgia for the 1950s.’ They cite Professor Andrew Samuels of Essex University in a letter to the Sunday Times October 2003: ‘Frank Furedi yearns for a pre-therapy time that he must know never really existed – a time when people stood on their own two feet and dealt with things fairly and squarely without recourse to and dependence on the assistance of others.’ The problems are not new and hence not constructed by the therapists. His core appeal is to the conservative propensities of both the Mail and Telegraph readership and places him: ‘in the same camp as those who bemoan the decline of the family, traditional values, male dominance and standards of spoken English’.

I happened to attend The University of Kent at Canterbury, where Furedi lectures, and am aware that it provides a woefully inadequate counselling service, with only five sessions available to any student who needs to use it, because of the shortage of counsellors. Furedi should be aware that university is a highly stressful time in one’s life and can present many traumas, with a high rate of suicides in proportion to the general population. Students face many difficulties with which they feel they need professional help, and as five sessions is nowhere near enough to resolve complex issues, Furedi should maybe look at the situation in his own university before criticising the ‘therapy culture’.

Of course there will always be instances where therapy may not benefit an individual, and there will be some less than professional therapists. However to infer from this that counselling is dysfunctional per se and that it ‘cultivates vulnerability’ rather than attribute these pathologies to modern society is a gross oversimplification. Counselling can help relieve the suffering caused by anxiety, depression and emotional vulnerability. It is insulting both to professionals trying to help people and the recipients of the treatment trying to improve their lives, to say otherwise.

1. http://www.mentalhealth.org.uk/page.cfm?pagecode=PRST
2. http://www.bacp.co.uk/media/pr/044.htm