The Normalization of Therapy

It came to my attention recently that a recent survey by Hinge, the dating app, reportedly found that 88% of its users prefer to date someone who believes in, and is participating in therapy.

The Gen-Xer in me was a little blown away by this finding.

I’ve previously written about the fact that in my lifetime, social acceptance around therapy has changed dramatically. When I was in my 20s, therapy was a closely guarded secret, revealed only to those whom one trusted implicitly. And even so, a common response from others, when opening up about being in counselling was “What’s wrong?” or “Are you OK?” accompanied by a hushed tone of voice, just in case there was someone else in the vicinity.

And as someone who has received a lot of therapy in her lifetime and continues to touch base with a therapist, I’d probably be living with a lot of shame, if I’d been born 20 years earlier. Therapy has come a long way!

What is Changing?

There are a number of signs that therapy is becoming increasingly normalized in the West. Things that I have noticed anecdotally as a therapist:

  • Large-scale public awareness about the importance of mental health.
  • More information in conventional and social media about mental health issues and treatment (including therapy).
  • Disclosing or discussing our participation in therapy with others in our life, including, comparing notes.
  • Self-referenced neutrality around one’s status as a therapy client.
  • Funding options, not previously available, such as the Federal government-funded initiative, Wellness Together Canada or the uptick in employers that are increasing the mental health benefits packages offered to their employees.
  • Campaigns, such as one in BC, to try to get counselling and psychotherapy recognized as a covered benefit under the Medical Services Plan (MSP).
  • An increase over time in private universities—offering master’s level counsellor training programs. When I was a student, the master’s level counselling programs in Metro Vancouver were the University of British Columbia (two options available)  and two at Simon Fraser University: period.
  • An increased demand from the public for mental health services during the pandemic.
  • More inquiries about therapy from the public.
  • An increase in clients who are willing to pursue therapy for a wider variety of issues than might be seen traditionally.
  • As we move away as a society from rigid gender stereotypes, the phenomenon of asking for help becomes more universalized.
  • An upward trend in the desire to approach therapy proactively.

Proactive Therapy – Pros and Cons

While I believe that all of the factors, named above, have contributed towards normalizing counselling and psychotherapy in the public consciousness, I feel that so-called ‘proactive therapy,’ deserves a special mention.

Approaching anything proactively would seem to make common-sense. Proactive rather than reactive. Crisis prevention versus crisis intervention.

While not an official school of therapy, approaching therapy proactively could mean:

  • Anticipating future life problems, events or possible crises that you are seeking to better prepare for or improve your coping strategies around.
  • Talking about current day-to-day life stressors to reduce overwhelm and enhance wellbeing.
  • Goal planning and meeting with a therapist regularly to enhance accountability.
  • Bolstering current supports to improve quality of life.

What could be wrong with this?

Actually, nothing, intrinsically, but—at the risk of being a Debbie downer—proactive therapy may have some unintended negative effects, including:

  • Grasping at straws in a counselling session, wondering what to talk about – awkward for you, awkward for the counsellor.
  • Ethical challenge for counsellors – The counsellor, after an initial assessment, may believe that no further counselling is needed. Similarly–especially for therapists who have a strength-based approach to therapy—the therapist does not want to “manufacture” problems for the sake of something to talk about, particularly if the client has not identified an issue they are struggling with.
  • Being “overtherapized” may compromise your your self-confidence and self-esteem, particularly if you are wondering whether you are in “worse shape” than you ever thought, or if you  attribute all of your success to your counsellor or, additionally, believe that you cannot ever cope without your therapist in future.
  • If counselling becomes more widely available, due to increased public demand, a portion of those stepping up to provide therapy will not be regulated. All therapists are not created equal: counselling is not universally regulated in BC and it is up to the public to do their homework. Education of therapists ranges from no training at all to a PhD. Further, some counsellors, with 1-2 year diplomas, will charge as much or more than counsellors with master’s degrees in social work or counselling.
  • If counselling is happening “just because,” clients will be more more vulnerable to unscrupulous counsellors who are happy to simply to see you for a lackluster session and take your money. Fortunately, in my years working as a therapist, I have seen this only rarely.
  • Expecting a therapist to “choose” a focus for you, if you don’t know why you are going for counselling, only disempowers you as a client and undermines your personal growth.

A Few Takeaways

  • Celebrate how far we have come as a society as we move away from stigma toward a place where mental health is less likely to trigger shame; humans are wired for connection!
  • Talking about mental health and counselling, whether that is deeply with trusted friends or casually in other settings, contributes to a reduction in stigma in our society and the increased likelihood that people with reach out to one another when support is needed; public discourse around therapy and mental health issues is also key to reducing social stigma.
  • Invest in mental health initiatives, whether through donations of money or service, or voting for elected officials who share the same vision.
  • Do your homework: ensure that you a choosing a therapist who is regulated with a professional college or at least registered with an association.
  • If your employer offers an extended health benefits package, ask them to cover counselling services if they don’t already. Even better, ask that your plan include a variety of regulated mental health professionals so that you can have more choice about who you want to see at a variety of price points.
  • Choose a focus for counselling. A therapist cannot always do that for you, and if they do, ask about their reasons. Do they make sense to you?
  • Ideally, counselling is voluntary. Choosing counselling under duress, or because of an ultimatum, often does not work out well.
  • Understand that counselling is but one of many things that can be helpful for your mental health. Have a range of wellness options in your toolbox.
  • Recognize that counselling is not for everyone, even though you might think it is.
  • Celebrate and take responsibility for the gains you have made in counselling!