A combination of therapeutic ineffectuality, spiritual arrogance and moral bankruptcy makes counselling a scandal, argues Bruce Charlton
The counselling cult
There are hundreds of different schools of counselling or psychotherapy. But they are all set apart from the actually effective psychological techniques of behaviour therapy and cognitive therapy by a belief in the intrinsic virtue of confession.
The crux of counselling is a conversation in which the client unburdens himself frankly and fully. Such relationships are based on the Freudian notion that it is always beneficial to 'talk through' feelings, experiences, opinions and especially bring to light memories of secret or shameful events (usually from childhood) of a kind that are supposed to be the cause of current problems. This type of one-sided confessional relationship is a vital component of many 'brainwashing' techniques, creating an emotional reliance upon the confessor: the more secret and shameful the things confessed, the greater is the desire for that 'absolution' only the confessor can give.
Yet confessional counselling has no specific therapeutic effectiveness. When tested under controlled conditions there is no difference in therapeutic outcome between trained and untrained personnel, and no difference according to length of training or between schools of practice. The therapeutic benefits of counselling are the result of a placebo effect and are non-specifically due to supportive conversation. Expertise in counselling cannot be inculcated, and the techniques and theories (Freudian, Jungian, Adlerian, Kleinian, etc) are irrelevant to effectiveness. Professional therapists are no better at the job than Joe Bloggs: indeed there is good reason to believe that professional counsellors are usually worse than Joe Bloggs.
Counsellors are largely self-selected, which leads to recruitment of a considerable number of individuals whose motivations are suspect. It is an open secret that counselling differentially attracts practitioners from those who have suffered emotional and psychological problems and are (consciously or implicitly) seeking help for their own difficulties through the counselling relationship. Of course, having suffered from such difficulties oneself does not necessarily mean that one is inappropriately motivated or unable to help others; but having a history of psychiatric troubles is not a recommendation for dealing with vulnerable people. It makes little sense for recruitment to be based upon incapacity rather than ability.
The various schools of counselling should be considered not as therapies but as a collection of quasi-religious cults, which employ confessional brainwashing techniques to win converts. Although counselling techniques do not have specific therapeutic benefits they often induce distinctive personality changes: in particular, dependence on the therapist and a new way of interpreting human affairs. Such outcomes do not constitute an improvement in personal functioning, but an initiation into the role of acolyte. As with any cult, the convert claims vast benefits and positive transform-ation, while the convert's previous friends and family can see only wilful blindness and fanaticism. There is no arguing with converts - they have had inculcated a set of standards of evidence and special methods of reasoning that render normal rational arguments ineffective. Indeed, to argue against counselling is itself seen as a sign of sickness: a pathological denial of revealed truth.
Ultimately the rise of counselling can be seen as a triumph of hope over common sense. Everybody hopes for true friendship with somebody who is kind, understanding, wise and a good listener. But it is absurd to imagine that true friendship can be had for the asking - paid for on an hourly basis - or that its benefits can be encapsulated in a trained technique deployed impartially. We have no reason to believe that the fundamental problems of life - birth, love, loss, happiness, sadness, death - are amenable to solution by applying a technique of managing conversations, or that the negative, etiolated worldview embodied in counselling makes a satisfactory religious basis for a conversion experience. The counselling cult is a confidence trick, which preys upon a wishful craving that perennial questions can be answered and intractable miseries dissolved by 'talking through' things with a hired expert. The problem is genuine, the response is phoney.
This is a cultural strategy that is profoundly damaging for both individuals and society. In times of trouble many of us seek a true friend, a person of goodwill and good sense. If no true friend, no trusted family member and nobody familiar of solid and sympathetic character (perhaps a doctor, priest or teacher) is available, then, and only then, may a paid conversationalist be a suitable last resort. Counselling is merely a poor fourth best. Yet it is routinely implied that counselling is not a last resort for the socially isolated, but the optimal assistance that can be given to all desperate and damaged people. Close family, trusted friends and familiar professionals are being 'warned off' conversing with loved ones who are deeply troubled or when the issues are grave, because they lack 'training' in the recommended techniques. This suggests that people who genuinely care about us (as opposed to being members of a 'caring profession') are disqualified from being helpful because they are too 'involved', too 'judgemental', too 'directive'. The cant phrase 'you need professional help' says it all: that somebody deeply troubled 'needs' help from these self-styled experts in life itself.
If counselling becomes established and entrenched, as it already has in certain parts of the United States, then family life, relations between friends and voluntary association will all be rendered two-dimensional - robbed of depth and seriousness as tough questions are passed over to paid conversationalists. But there is no trainable technique for dealing with problems of living, and no routine expertise in discussing the meaning of life. Counselling is a phoney profession; paid conversationalists are no substitute for real friends.
Bruce Charlton MD is a lecturer in psychology at Newcastle University. He will be speaking at the LM debate 'Dunblane, Diana and the dangers of counselling culture' at the Edinburgh Fringe on Monday 24 August
Reproduced from LM issue 112, July/August 1998