Psychotherapy as the faith for the 3rd millennium
Poverty and work are what make most of us miserable – and therapy is not the solution, writes Paul Moloney, a counselling psychologist.
Recent months have seen the science and politics of “happiness” endorsed by commentators of all persuasions. Richard Layard – a consultant to the government – called for a huge increase in the number of publicly funded psychological therapists. These therapists, he suggests, would help to combat the personal and social malaise that seems to be afflicting us at record levels, and their cost will be more than recovered by savings in benefit payments to depressed individuals who will be encouraged to return to work.
Moloney goes on to say:
The “happiness on prescription” argument rests upon three key assumptions: that the causes of psychological distress lie in the way that we see the world, not in the way that it is; that psychotherapy and counselling are reliable and proven methods for solving our problems; and that unhappiness is necessarily a bad thing. However, the likelihood is that these assumptions are simply wrong.
These issues are nowhere more sharply revealed than in the world of work. During the past 20 years, coercive control – in the form of stringent targets, performance appraisal, increased monitoring and surveillance in the workplace – has been matched by a culture of long hours and contractual and financial insecurity, even for middle-class professionals. For many, the prospects of falling into chronic debt or poverty are more threatening than ever, especially for the 20% of British citizens who live on or below the poverty line.
My wife has personal experience of this. About 8 years ago she took a job with a local security firm. She had been working in a job she enjoyed, but it was 50km from home on a traffic congested route. So she took a job closer to home. As a bookkeeper, her job as initially to combine the accounting systems of rapidly amalgamating security companies. After South Africa’s first democratic elections in 1994, many government security forces were disbanded, and there was a rapid growth of “one man and his dog” security companies, which tended to expand as South Africa, previously protected from international crime by economic sanctions, was exposed to a growing crime problem. But the small “armed response” security outfits could not cope with increased administration, and so they tended to get taken over by bigger ones.
Eventually my wife became financial manager of the Pretoria branch, and the firm itself was taken over by an international conglomerate, and the work pressure increased because there was a deadline for reporting to the British subsidiary, which in turn had a deadline for reporting to its American holding company. My wife and most of the staff in her office were working 16 hours a day, and often seven days a week. Suddenly the meaning of that obscene term of modern bizspeak, “human resources”, became clear. The work environment had become depersonalised. One no longer works to live, but lives to work, like battery hens. My wife was then transferred to the head office in Sandton, and four of her 16 hours of work a day became devoted to commuting. A few weeks ago she resigned and took a job at lower pay in a smaller firm closer to home. where she can be a person and not just part of an amorphous mass of “human resources”.
I give this example because I simply cannot conceive of any way in which psychotherapy could help my wife or any of the millions of others who find themselves in a similar position. Apart from anything else, when would she find time to do it? As Moloney points out, the problem is not so much in the way that we see the world, but in the way the world is.
It seems that psychotherapy is replacing Christianity as the opium of the people in the West and elsewhere. Karl Marx, in his analysis of 19th-century capitalism, ascribed this role to religion. Religion, in his view, provided the “flowers on the chains” to keep the workers oppressed and enslaved to Mr Gradgrind. But in the 21st century Mr Gradgrind has himself become a “human resource” in a multinational corporation.
This switch is also reflected in literature.
One of my favourite fiction authors is Phil Rickman, who has written a series of novels, mostly set in the English-Welsh border country, with an overlapping cast of characters. At first sight Rickman appears to be the British Stephen King, a writer of supernatural horror stories. King’s novels, however are pretty one-dimensional. The supernatural evil in them is nihilistic, and the main dramatic tension is the struggle of the individual characters to fight the evil or be overwhelmed by it.
Rickman’s novels, especially those featuring the Revd Merrily Watkins, diocesan exorcist (but called a “deliverance consultant” to sound more trendy) for the Diocese of Hereford, show the confusion and sometimes conflict between the role of the church and the role of psychotherapy. And in his novels evil is not just something alien, out there, for human characters to struggle against or be overwhelmed by. In Rickman’s novels evil is enmeshed in the human world itself, where ambition, greed, lust and cruelty form part of the fabric of human society. Evil is not just individual, but social, economic and political.