Vote and Rate Jamie Clubb's articles and reviews

Thursday 1 July 2010

Replacing the Village Elder: Some Notes on the Counselling Age

wwwCounselingImage by alancleaver_2000 via Flickr
In 2007 I watched a very dear relative of mine die before my eyes. We were very close and I had known him all my life. It wasn't a sudden death, but his mind had been pretty sharp up until his final hours, which made his passing anything but a relief for those around him. He loved life and lived it to the full, and was positive right up until the very end. The whole experience was horrid for all those around him. An hour after his passing we all sat in the hospital reception, giving support to his wife as the nurses on the ward went through the basic formalities. The wife was asked whether she would like some bereavement counselling. Her response was a defiant,
unambiguous and definitive “No!” However, she felt she had to explain why, “I have family”. Those hearing this reason clearly didn't understand the huge gravity and legitimacy of it. Mere days later the calls began. No doubt, it was a type of after care the hospital were obliged to do, regardless of the wishes of the bereaved. However, for my poor relative, who had grown up in a close-knit travelling circus community all her life, the calls were like someone levering up a fresh scab. For those close to her it was tough enough to field and filter calls from the numerous people she knew without having to deal with strangers. For my mother, who had helped nurse and support my relative through his terminal illness for 10 months, it was just a continuation of the “well-meaning” care she had witnessed prior to the death. Memories of visiting nurses overstaying their welcome and stealing the precious time his family had left with my beloved relative were all-too-recent. At the time “New Scientist” magazine were revealing some incredible new research into cancer that made my relative hopeful. The nurses patronizingly dismissed the information. For Mum this just reminded her of the McMillan Nurses and the way they made an dying “auntie” tell everyone she was going to die. I have a lot of respect for what the nurses do as an organization, but this was an unnecessary and thoughtless act by two of their representatives.

Counselling, like charities, is an almost “no go” zone when it comes to being publicly critical. The 1990s saw the rise of a “caring” society, as a type of backlash to the “Me Generation” of the 1980s. However, looking back we see that this sentimentality was just as superficial and part of an image as anything the '80s culture represented. The '90s also saw the rapid growth of therapy in the consumer market. As John Humphry's wryly pointed out in “Devil's Advocate”, before the 1990s we thought of therapists as a service for the rich and guilty-feeling who needed someone to make them feel good again. In the 1990s they evolved and cross-pollinated with the self-help gurus and the motivational speakers. This prompted the steady rise of life coaches and anger management experts. Counselling in some form or other has become ingrained in our society and a desire to get the “feel-good” factor has surpassed the desire to practically improve anything. As the 2000s became more voyeuristic with the rise of the internet and reality TV, speaking about your problems to strangers and receiving their advice is not only considered to be normal behaviour, it is almost considered to be abnormal not to do this. Unsolicited opinions on someone's personal affairs are regular currency, often written up on Facebook, Myspace and any number of other social networks. Everyone, it appears, sees themselves as a life coach and their opinion is just as valid as anyone else's. Likewise areas like psychology and psychiatry are often considered untouchable by the general public, when they are anything but an exact science.

An old British Telecom advertising campaign used to announce “It's good to talk”, often at the end of a five minute tear-jerking story. True, humans are social creatures. I am an ardent individualist, but having grown up around a very strong local and global community, I can fully appreciate the importance of the support of friends and family. However, the sense of community I know is distinctly different from the one being imposed on society today. As society and industrialization progressed, so humans became more alienated. Irrational fear prompted parents to take their children off the streets. More flexible working hours and increased pressure drove individuals away from just about everyone but their work colleagues and their immediate family. Inside the home new entertainment and communication systems helped cut people off from their local communities. Of course, this is just the negative side to progress and I am playing devil's advocate against the advantages technology has given to individualists like me, but the point is that humans remain social animals and their desire to be social has been channelled or exploited by others in other areas.

A discussion on the range of pseudoscientific and legitimate areas of psychiatric therapy would seriously sidetrack this article, suffice to say that there is no real evidence that psychoanalysis has “cured” anyone of anything. Worse still, the belief that problems are caused by deep-seated repressed memories has had seriously damaging repercussions. In the 1980s a type of hysteria, comparable to the Salem Witch Trials, led to widespread untrue accusations of Satanic Ritual Abuse. It is worth mentioning, as few people consider the possible damage that can be done in professional therapy.

Back to counselling in general and I feel I should explain I am not against it. I know some great counsellors and I know some people who are natural listeners and would make great counsellors. I am also fascinated by psychiatry and psychology, and I think practices like criminology and behavioural science are very valid and important areas of study. What I don't like is the professional and unprofessional enforcement of counselling on free citizens who do not request it. The assumption that a person suffering from an emotional trauma or facing a terminal situation should not be allowed to deal with personal matters in their own way is misguided at best and it's one of the most hurtful forms of bullying at worst. My family have suffered and experienced cancer on many occasions. We have a large family and, through the circus community, a global extended family. We are realists. On both the occasion when my beloved relative and my dear “auntie” were dying from cancer no-one around them was in denial. We understood the diagnosis and we had been in the situation on countless occasions. What we didn't need was complete strangers to insist we that “come to terms” with the situation publicly. We are responsible grown-ups. If we want help, we'll ask thank you very much.
In conclusion, the existence of counselling saddens me. The wise elder of the community who could be consulted upon request has been replaced by someone who hasn't known you all your life and had the benefit of watching you from the sidelines. We now approach total strangers to help us with our problems and, worse still, sometimes have these people forced upon us. I finish with an example taken from John Humphrys' book, “Devil's Advocate”. Humphrys explains how the developed world were surprised and puzzled when a primitive society, whilst recovering from a major natural catastrophe, refused western counsellors in favour of more practical help. The charities involved with the aid explained to TV reporters that the society they were dealing with had no concept of counselling whatsoever. It was reported as if they had been sorely deprived. Humphrys was disgusted with the western aid's ignorance. Of course, this society had a system of counselling in place: it is called local community!

Recommended Reading:

Recommended links:

New entries on "The Skeptics Dictionary" on New Age Psychotherapy & Freudian Psychoanalysis

Don't forget to check out Jamie Clubb's main blog
Enhanced by Zemanta