Is therapy political?

I’ve just given a presentation at a local college about ‘Psychotherapists and Counsellors for Social Change’, an organization I’m a member of. The subsequent discussion highlighted that what I’ve always taken for granted – that therapy is political – is by no means self evident.

hands linked in a network

Those who were around in the late 1960s may remember the rallying call that “the personal is political”. That phrase isn’t much used today but retains its power for me. Years ago I rather cynically wondered if therapy was just a way to patch people up so that they could get back to serving a dysfunctional system. I don’t think that’s true in general, but we need to be aware of the possibility.

Mindfulness is a disturbing example of how a powerful therapy can be used to serve a dysfunctional system. I’m a big fan of mindfulness, but it’s sometimes used to ‘manage’ the stress felt by people pressured by the unreasonable demands of a big corporation.

In Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World the masses are kept in check with daily doses of a drug called soma. Soma dissolves away any concerns someone might have about human rights or freedom. One character is puzzled about why a friend worries about such things:

“why you don’t take soma when you have these dreadful ideas of yours. You’d forget all about them. And instead of feeling miserable, you’d be jolly. So jolly.”

Instead of soma we have retail therapy. And what else I wonder? How many Doctors prescribe antidepressants to people who actually just need a decent job or better social support?

I could go on, as there are myriad ways in which therapy is political. Looking back over this blog, it’s a theme that comes up repeatedly without me ever being explicit about it. It feels like a core belief; something that’s so ‘obvious’ to me that I never bothered to question it. And now? While I’m grateful for the opportunity to look at my belief that therapy is political, I hold it as deeply now as I ever have.

Psychotherapists and Counsellors for Social Change

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4 Responses to Is therapy political?

  1. Thanks for flagging up how corporates have attempted to coopt mindfulness! I thoroughly recommend this article for more info on how capitalism exacerbates mental health

  2. Thanks Kirsten. This discussion remind me of something I wrote many years ago: “With the spiritual lost from our world we seek something to replace it. What has emerged from loss is obsessive consumerism, an ersatz religion that has reached its apotheosis in our age. The consumer object is the fetish, to consume becomes the rite, while advertising vampirizes our deepest needs to preach the new creed of the product. Consumerism leads us like a will-o-the-wisp to destruction, & we follow like lemmings. It is a cancer on the physical world, destroying our environment with its insatiable demands, & worse still it is a cancer of the soul, cheapening & prostituting the spirit”.
    “Sacred Ecology”, 1994. Sadly, not much has changed.

  3. Loved reading your viewpoint Dr. Harris; this is a topic that psychologists don’t delve much into. For me, psychotherapy or mindfulness is basically building up of individual strengths. They are to prepare a person for dealing with life and its hurdles; maybe go back to serve a dysfunctional system as well. But, patients are the focal point of therapy sessions; that is the big picture.

  4. Administrator says:

    Good to hear from you Lily. I think it’s a shame that the politics of therapy don’t get discussed more. We can deepen our practice and serve our clients / patients better with by adding that dimension.

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