Columns

Dorris ’15: Why therapy is cool

By
Opinions Columnist
Sunday, October 21, 2012

It’s midterm season again. Our stress levels are rising. As the week goes on, listen to the conversations around you. Haven’t you heard at least one person jokingly begin a sentence with “My therapist thinks…” or end with, “That’s what my therapist said”? Do you ever see self-critical jokes on Twitter accompanied by the hashtag #NeedTherapy?

We hear these jokes more and more in comedy. Sarah Silverman frequently laughs about childhood traumas – the time she discovered her therapist had hanged himself, but was forced to stay until the end of the session. We see it on the Internet. Lena Dunham’s Twitter bio begins with “My life is my art, and therapy is my palette.” Depression has always been the mark of an artist.

And though we all aren’t tortured artists, there is no denying that being conflicted is sexy. Having problems is endearing. People who want to seem funny and smart and open-minded talk about therapy – infer it, joke about it. It’s like going to yoga or getting a massage or drinking Odwalla juice. It’s supposed to be healthy.

According to Belinda Johnson, director of Brown Psychological Services, the percentage of the Brown student body seeking therapy has oscillated between 16 percent and 18 percent throughout the last 10 years. Nevertheless, Johnson believes “there has been a steady, though gradual, decrease in the stigma associated with seeking help.” And the rise in students seeking help is not unique to Brown. In 2009-10, 8 percent of the Colorado State University student body used psychological services. That rose to 13 percent in the next two years. All around the country, health experts are observing similar increases in visits to mental health facilities. But why?

Maybe it’s because pop culture – mainly reality television – is constantly referencing therapy.

It all started with Dr. Drew and “Celebrity Rehab.” Then the Real Housewives started broadcasting their “tawk” sessions. Shortly after there was “Interior Therapy with Jeff Lewis” – who is not a therapist himself, but a real estate agent who renovates houses. And most recent is the VH1 series, “Couples Therapy.” In February, Bravo was even casting for a rumored Los Angeles-based reality show called “The Therapists.”

Our obsession with “treatment” extends beyond television. Athletes have sports psychologists. Celebrities do it. Some say a network of shrinks connects the entire city of New York. Therapy is trendy. Well, at least talking about it is.

But is therapy really supposed to be something entertaining or is this just another example of tabloid voyeurism – do we have misconceptions about what “seeing a therapist” actually means?

Possibly. Those of us who are running to the fifth floor of J. Walter Wilson might be disappointed. First of all, therapy is not free. It can be expensive. Not all insurance plans cover it, or the co-pay is horrendous. Brown offers seven free sessions per year before students have to come up with cash.

And believe it or not, sometimes therapy can make people feel worse. Though it’s disputable, there is an inherent conflict of interest where therapists lose money when patients stop seeking help. Sometimes patients are panicked into believing they have more problems than they actually do. Feeling sad? Nothing 50 more sessions can’t cure.

Yet that’s the supposedly beautiful thing about therapy – there is no destination, only a journey. That means you won’t be closing your wallet until well, forever. Unless your therapist hangs himself Silverman-style, and the journey finally ends. Or you die.

Don’t get me wrong. There are times when therapy is absolutely necessary. If you are depressed, chronically anxious, a subject of trauma, then it’s a good idea to get help. But the whole reason “there is a steady, though gradual decrease” in the stigma associated with therapy is not because people are more accepting of mental conditions like depression and anxiety. These, in fact, still face unjust stigmatization. It’s because being obsessed with one’s own mental health has become normalized. Therapy is something “normal” people do. It is devalued.

Brown may offer students seven free sessions but there is no therapist in the world that believes a person can be treated in seven sessions. Because therapy is ongoing. It’s not something you can mark off a checklist. It’s not like going to the gym. Even after many months of sessions, I often hear students complain they “still don’t feel treated” – maybe because there was never a condition to treat.

Therapy draws us inward, but sometimes what we really need is to be pushed out, outside our own heads, outside the Brown bubble. Some say volunteering is the best therapy. And there are other natural supports that can help with emotional distress – friends, family, peers, exercise, meditation. The list goes on.

Because therapy isn’t fun. It’s not like getting a massage. And if you’re doing it right, it shouldn’t feel good. It should feel painful, and then weird, and then somehow okay. And if you don’t need it, why would you want to go through that?

There’s no denying some people really benefit from therapy. And while I don’t think Brown should cut back on its services, I do think we should question ourselves before we consider it a fast solution for all types of emotional distress.

 

 

 

Cara Dorris ’15 can be reached at cara_dorris@brown.edu or @CaraDorris.

20 Comments

  1. Daniel S. Harrop '76, '79 M.D. says:

    “… but there is no therapist in the world that believes a person can be treated in seven sessions.” Where does this statistic come from? Actually, the average number of psychotherapy sessions per episode of care is between six and seven (Kramer and Trabin, 1997). Most people who present for psychotherapeutic support can be treated quite nicely with seven sessions.

  2. daniel s. harrop – seven sessions? are you kidding? the article is right. the mind is not something that can be “treated” in any ridiculous amount of time like that.

  3. I’m trusting the guy with the MD, not Cara Dorris who, as far as I can tell, makes up most of her purportedly factual statements based on her personal experience alone. Writing op-eds doesn’t absolve you of having to support your claims with legitimate sources and facts, you know.

  4. harrop – Are you even reading what Dorris is saying? Just because the average amount of time a person sees a therapist is between six and seven sessions doesn’t mean the patient was treated. It just means the patient decided to stop seeing the therapist – and that is exactly what Dorris argues is wrong about therapy. it’s not something you do in “seven free sessions”

  5. remember: this is an opinions column. yes, Dorris is not a doctor but she is offering a fresh perspective on therapy. i know a lot of people who constantly see a therapist but seem to get no benefit from it. no one even brings her point up – maybe it’s not working.

  6. I can see why Cara thinks there’s a problem with the popularization of therapy, but I disagree. She claims that being “obsessed with one’s own mental health has become normalized.” And this is a problem because..? Who is she to assume that others don’t have genuine concerns they want addressed, that they’re merely doing it because it’s “cool”? Just because Sarah Silverman makes a joke or someone hashtags #needtherapy on Twitter doesn’t mean therapy is now some bandwagon everybody is trying to jump on when they apparently should just be volunteering instead. Unless you have some significant statistic that actually correlates the recent increase in visits to mental health facilities with rising references to therapy in pop culture, please be wary of making sweeping claims and generalizations.

  7. And though we all aren’t tortured artists, there is no denying that being controversial is sexy. Having problems for the sake of having problems is endearing. People who want to seem funny and smart and open-minded write “controversial” op-eds – infer it, joke about it. It’s like going to yoga or getting a massage or drinking Odwalla juice. It’s supposed to make you seem edgy.

  8. why is everyone getting so worked up about this? just because it’s different than what you believe? this is a light-hearted, clever, and very funny article that presents a rarely discussed viewpoint. i don’t think the author is trying to “seem edgy” or “controversial.” is this really so controversial? everyone needs to relax. or maybe go to therapy.

  9. great article. people are definitely paying attention. it’s taboo these days to even suggest that our sacred belief in therapy might be misplaced at times.
    LOVE this: “Yet that’s the supposedly beautiful thing about therapy – there is no destination, only a journey. That means you won’t be closing your wallet until well, forever. Unless your therapist hangs himself Silverman-style, and the journey finally ends. Or you die.”

  10. this is the most inane thing I’ve ever read.

  11. nice article – funny and very very true

  12. There are many ways this article is deeply offensive to those of us who have used (and greatly benefited from) therapists before, but the one that bothers me the most is the statement “obsessed with one’s own mental health.” Obsession is actually a specific mental health condition that a lot of people seek therapy for, and I don’t in any way appreciate you making light of that. This comes from a former BDH opinions columnist too, for what it’s worth.

    Additionally, if it’s even true that more people are seeing a therapist, that’s a really good thing. Mental health is severely undertreated. Also Brown doesn’t offer seven sessions because that is supposed to always fix everything, but because they have limited resources, and do as much as they can with the time they have, and refer you off campus pretty much right away if they think you’ll need more than that.

  13. how intolerant are you people? this is a different, thoughtful viewpoint and you’re trying to censor it just because it’s not what you believe. i am glad Dorris isn’t afraid to say stuff like this, not afraid of the chorus.

  14. Dr. Silverman says:

    I have never seen any patients make any types of improvements in fewer 10 sessions. This article is wholly factual. Great points made

  15. Fully aware that this is indeed an opinions column, I do find this piece to be written with such insensitivity, I hardly know what to say. Just looking at the passage:
    “Yet that’s the supposedly beautiful thing about therapy – there is no destination, only a journey. That means you won’t be closing your wallet until well, forever. Unless your therapist hangs himself Silverman-style, and the journey finally ends. Or you die.”
    Are you really, jokingly, implying suicide here?

    Also, I don’t believe that Brown is endorsing the belief that a student will “be treated” in seven sessions.

  16. This the most offensive and insensitive editorial I have seen coming from any Brown publication during my time at the University.

    “And though we all aren’t tortured artists, there is no denying that being conflicted is sexy. Having problems is endearing. People who want to seem funny and smart and open-minded talk about therapy – infer it, joke about it. It’s like going to yoga or getting a massage or drinking Odwalla juice. It’s supposed to be healthy.”

    Talking about therapy and attending therapy is to pull oneself from the depths of shame regarding mental health issues. Those who choose to take care of themselves by attending therapy are not trying to seem funny, or hoping that their being conflicted makes them sexy. It is a difficult decision for most people to decide to go to therapy because of the stigmas and shame associated with mental illness. One out of four Americans have a diagnosable mental illness, so please be more sensitive and understanding to the 25% of us who struggle with these issues instead of making a mockery of the treatment that can help us.

  17. I understand that Dorris’s column addresses an issue that hits especially close to home to a number of readers who do seek the resources of therapists in healthy ways, and whom should be lauded for doing so. In stating that therapy should be painful if it is being used correctly, she is saluting those who have taken the brave steps to face their internal struggles. I would argue that she IS addressing, however, that the increase in self-indulgence among a specific elite population has kept pace with the rise in an increasingly superficial, consumerist culture. By stating that therapy has been “devalued” by those who abuse it, Dorris rather defends justified therapy-seekers. Therapy should inherently deal with internal struggles, so those who outwardly flaunt it have transformed it into a status symbol just as arbitrarily glamorized as any tangible good.

  18. doesn’t anyone get that this this piece is somewhat satirical? it’s obvious Dorris doesn’t personally believe going to therapy is like drinking Odwalla juice. she’s making fun of people who do believe that – who categorize therapy along with other superficial and material goods. if you don’t realize that then you’re misreading the entire point of the article.

  19. This is silly. Clearly the writer isn’t an insensitive robot. She has a point of view, and this article states it well. It’s actually a little boring to read, but there are some funny points, and I generally think she sums up our generation’s relationship with therapy well. People need to calm down – she’s just saying what she thinks.

  20. Brown only provides 7 free sessions through Psych servies. Those sessions are supposed to be for “emergency” discussions, like I’m-so-stressed-right-now-I-don’t-know-what-to-do. But if they think you have a chronic problem that needs to be addressed in on-going therapy sessions, they will refer you to local therapists, who accept Brown health insurance. The copay for those visits is a very reasonable $15.

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