September brings a number of entertaining national awareness days, such as Defy Superstition Day, National Butterscotch Pudding Day, and Ask a Stupid Question Day. When perusing the latest list of awareness days, it’s hard not to wonder if there’s a formal process or if anyone can arbitrarily declare a new awareness. With only 365 days—366 in this leap year—and the potential for hundreds of organizations to compete against each other, it’s easy to be concerned about what’s going to happen when we run out of days … anarchy?
Sarcasm aside, there are a number of important and well-publicized awareness days observed by hundreds of thousands, if not millions. In recent years, awareness days such as Breast Cancer Awareness Day and Aids Awareness Day have achieved worldwide exposure and become a part of our social consciousness. These awareness days and others, as indicated by the number of their followers, bring significant attention and much-needed funding to important issues impacting us and our fellow human beings.
One of the most recent—and in my view, one of the most important—is National Psychotherapy Day, which takes place September 25. National Psychotherapy Day is the brainchild of Ryan Howes, PhD, ABPP, and was founded by Ryan and his three associates: Jenna Wierenga, MA, Barbod Salimi, MA, and Adrienne Meier, MA. These great folks also established The Psychotherapy Foundation, a not-for-profit organization dedicated to raising money to help support underfunded community mental health centers and low-fee psychotherapy clinics.
National Psychotherapy Day aims to bring awareness to the current challenges faced by the field of psychotherapy. These challenges, as summarized on the National Psychotherapy Day website, are:
- Stigma remains for those who seek therapy.
- The media present a distorted view of therapy and therapists.
- Psychotherapy has no unified, active promotional campaign.
- Low-income counseling options are sparse, underfunded, and overwhelmed.
- Consumers aren’t aware of therapy’s proven, lasting effectiveness.
As founder and CEO of GoodTherapy.org, deciding to put my organization’s support behind National Psychotherapy Day was a no-brainer. I launched GoodTherapy.org in 2007 because I was fed up with hearing horror stories of therapists abusing their power and getting their own needs met at the expense of people in therapy. I realized early on that in addition to creating a directory with the highest membership standards, we also had to make efforts to educate consumers about the purposes, benefits, potential misuses, and myths about therapy. Reducing harm and promoting the benefits of psychotherapy is an enormous job, and it’s an honor to join forces with the folks at National Psychotherapy Day to stand with them in their efforts. There is a multitude of reasons to put your support behind this important day; here are the ones that resonate most with me:
1. The value of psychotherapy is at risk of depreciation and displacement by the pharmaceutical industry and the medical model.
The medical model is the perfect example of the old proverb: To a hammer, everything looks like a nail. Sadly, the science that has eradicated plagues, created miracle drugs, and furthered the scientific method also has led itself to believe that syndromes such as depression, anxiety, and others are purely biochemical in nature. Ironically, the psychiatric community overlooks Occam’s razor, the idea that the best hypothesis is the one that makes the fewest assumptions. The psychiatric industry ignores this principle, in favor of something much more complicated and imperfect, by disregarding the fact most suffering is a result of life experience. You can see for yourself that some of the common experiences that trigger depression, such as divorce, losing a job, the death of a loved one, and rejection, are not caused by your biochemistry or hardware. Indeed, some people may have a predisposition to feel depressed under certain circumstances. Certainly there exist syndromes that are purely organic in etiology, but let’s face the fact once and for all that the biochemical changes that happen in the nervous system following painful experiences are symptoms of the problem, not the problem itself.
Sure, we can take a drug and feel better, but medication does not operate on the emotional level, where the depression exists, and thus cannot provide anything other than a temporary Band-Aid. There is no drug that will, in and of itself, completely undo the sad reality that you can’t get out of bed in the morning because you’re depressed about your husband leaving you. There also is no drug that will help you let go of the resentment you’ve been holding for three years as a result of your business partner having stolen your investment. And there is no drug that will finally allow you to accept and feel comfortable in your body. However, all of these issues can be worked through emotionally in psychotherapy. There is a place for medication—it can be helpful if you can’t function. It can help to get you back on your feet and provide the stability needed to do the deeper work in psychotherapy.
If there is one tell-tale sign showing the influence of the medical model, it’s that since the 1980s most modern-day psychiatrists, the professional ancestors of Carl Jung and Sigmund Freud, have not been trained in traditional psychotherapy. With the enormous profits to be made, big pharmaceuticals have sold the typical American consumer on the belief that nearly every medical and psychological condition, from restless leg syndrome to social phobia, can be cured with medication. It’s not that these conditions are not real; the problem is that the availability of medication and the false promises made by big pharma enable those who desire instant gratification and symptom relief to seek medication over psychotherapy as a permanent cure. However, using medication without psychotherapy to treat psychological issues is like stitching a bullet wound without taking the bullet out, and sadly most consumers are unaware of the benefits and efficacy of psychotherapy in producing long-term change.
Psychotherapy is not magic. It’s simply the art of caring for the hurts we’d rather not feel—something medicine will never be able to do without the use of another human being.
2. As a result of how psychotherapists are portrayed in the media, the benefits of psychotherapy are largely overlooked and misunderstood by most Americans.
In my view, the most damage to the reputation of psychotherapy has been caused by Dr. Phil. Based on the critical, confrontational, and know-it-all attitude with which Dr. Phil treats his “patients,” there is no doubt he has scared off a generation of Americans from considering therapy. In my experience, of those who are brave enough to enter therapy, most assume they will be analyzed, shamed, and blamed. Of course, blaming and shaming is not what happens in therapy. Additionally, the media in their portrayal of psychotherapy have contributed to another big myth about therapy—that answers are found outside of us. Most people new to therapy expect the therapist to solve their problems for them, to have all the answers, and to somehow bestow change, enlightenment, and happiness on them, as if it’s as easy as putting change into a vending machine and having it spit something out.
3. Many therapists are modern-day spiritual healers, and deserve recognition.
Psychotherapy practice requires intensive emotional work, processing, reflection, and personal growth on the part of both the person in therapy and the therapist. This internal work is necessary for therapists because people in therapy often bring in issues similar to ones the therapist has struggled with. In order to be helpful and effective, the therapist needs to constantly be clearing out countertransference in order to remain compassionate, calm, and curious. In my view, good therapists are obligated to themselves and the people they treat to work through these issues and triggers, for a therapist can’t truly be helpful without being self-aware and there is no other way to avoid emotional burnout, compassion fatigue, and secondary trauma. Thus, successful therapists who stay in the field for years must invest their own money and time taking good care of themselves, achieving deeper levels of self-awareness and participating in their own therapy.
In traditional tribal cultures, the heroes were typically the warrior, the chief, and the shaman. Modern western culture continues to worship the warriors and the chiefs, along with celebrities such as musicians, actors, and athletes. All of these roles take skill and talent. But if you ask me who my heroes are, it’s the therapists, the modern-day shamans who spend day-in and day-out trying to help people to release the burdens and repair the hurts inflicted upon us by humanity. Some might view the deep emotional work faced by therapists as an occupational hazard, others as a dream job. Either way, I have deep gratitude for therapists who have dedicated their life’s work to helping others heal and grow.
These are just a few of the many reasons I have chosen to join Ryan and The Psychotherapy Foundation in their mission. I would like to take this opportunity to call on my peers to help spread the word and support National Psychotherapy Day in their own way. As a practitioner, you can offer a pro-bono therapy slot, share this article with your professional network, or donate your hourly fee to a low-fee clinic. Perhaps you have a better idea. For more ways to stand behind this important cause, please visit www.nationalpsychotherapyday.com.
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