No Tears Please We’re British

The New Statesman – 21st July 2003

I’ve worked as a psychotherapist for over 20 years. In that time, there haven’t been too
many traumas, apart from the day I fell off my own chair and had to re-interpret my
position. But there have been ample traumas about counselling and psychotherapy.
The culture seems to be in several minds at once.

On the one hand we’re in the midst of a therapy boom. Even Hilary Rodham Clinton can
exclaim: “Counselling saved my marriage”. Since 1991, that boom has accelerated
faster than Michael Schumacher. The membership of my professional organisation (the
British Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy) has grown by 160% in 12 years.

At the fully qualified end of the spectrum (including other organisations), there are now
around 30,000 of us compared with just 11,000 vicars. The number of doctors in Britain
increased by only 28% between 1991 and 2003. On the other hand, we are faced with a
newspaper culture generally so hostile to talking treatments I am surprised the therapists
haven’t copied the journalists and taken to drink.

You see, according to the Daily Mail: “Counsellors are always trying to give people
reasons to feel depressed, inadequate or a failure” When they are not doing that,
“Counsellors tend to undermine the strength of the human character”. And when it’s not
doing that: “Counselling prevents the emotional recovery of people in distress”.

The Editor of the Mail once asked his readers: “How on earth did we get through World War
II without a whole army of bereavement counsellors on hand?” The answer is, of course,
“at great cost and lasting damage to most British families” but we won’t divert to that now.

If you deconstruct the Mail’s almost weekly propaganda against the new “emotionalism”, you
will find a conjuror’s prestidigitation but no persuasive evidence.

Take a story last month. To justify the headline: “Counselling can worsen pain of
disasters”, their “science” correspondent cited this data: “Three studies found that
counselling helped, six suggested it made no difference and two found it had hindered
recovery”. In other words, the Mail cannot even count. The truthful headline would
have read: “Counselling can lessen the pain of disasters”.

Instinctively, the tabloids appear to fret when passions beyond sex and violence are
displayed. The Mail derided the tears both of Greg Rusedski when he lost Wimbledon
and Roger Federer when he won it.  They require the lachrymose to keep it to themselves,
as prize curmudgeon Lynda Lee Potter explains: “I feel uneasy at the sight of young girls
sobbing noisily in each other’s arms within full view of the television
cameras. If they wish to cry, they should do so inside and in private rather than with an
histrionic burst of emotion… Many of the pupils who will take advantage will be the
show-offs, the drama queens and (sic!) the workshy”. This was after a coach crash in
the Alps which killed three Bolton pupils on a school holiday.

Of course, we might agree that the Mail is a lost cause. But what price the Sunday
Times? Their “health” correspondent wrote two articles last March seeking to show that
“repression is good for you” (and counselling is bad for you) based on the work of
celebrated London psychiatrist Professor Simon Wessely.

After the appearance of the first article, he said: “I was misquoted; I made no comments
about counselling as such; I am very strongly in favour of psychological treatments”.
After the second – “Does tragedy change lives for the better?” – a staff writer on
The Economist was heard to dismiss the Sunday Times as a “nest of fiction writers”.
The ST headline, by the by, was naturally contradicted by their underlying copy and
you will be relieved to know that trauma remains “always best avoided”!

At this point, some of us began to suspect an MOD plot to toughen the nation’s sinews in
the prelude to bloodshed. Yet I think a more fundamental shift in social attitudes and
values has fuelled the media abreaction to the therapy boom. The real problem is that
our newshounds remain doggedly nationalist, even imperialist. Their nose is pointing at
the bigger picture of Britain’s “role” in the world so that when the country tries to find a
less collective, more individual sense of soul, the right-wing papers bark in panic. How
can the nation retain its manly bite if we grow too “touchy-feely”?

Their darkest hour, of course, remains the unprecedented outpouring of public grief
following the death of Diana in a Paris road tunnel. As ever, their covert answer to the
nation was “to pull yourself together”.

In a 24/7 technocratic economy, where families are falling apart and personal morality is
just a menu, therapy has become popular because it offers a better answer than “pull
yourself together”. There is evidence, for example (in BMJ December 2000) that
counselling is the best treatment for most depressions (lasting less than a year)
compared to GP care and pills.

But the story goes deeper than that. The British, it seems to me, have finally learned to
challenge the cult of the “stiff upper lip”. Maybe this repressive neurosis was a
necessary adjunct to the making of the largest Empire the world has ever seen by one of
the smallest countries in the atlas. For how else could 200,000 white soldiers rule India
unless they fostered a myth of racial supremacy and supernatural courage under fire?
Ditto for Africa. Watch the film “Zulu” to see what I mean. No it’s not the peculiar
performance of Michael Caine as a cockney subaltern it’s the alien calmness under
attack of the thin red line of Tommies as they hold off and defeat a zillion Zulus.

This stiff upper lip was born in the prep schools of late Victorian Britain where a set
of mother-deprived young men who never whined or blubbed when homesick, or hit on the head
by a cricket ball, rolled down the Colonial production lines to serve the Empire of their
clinically depressed Queen. That’s where the story really starts.

Small pockets of emotionalism survived for a while. Many Victorian bereavement rituals
were prolonged and elaborate. They included weeks of formal mourning, long epistles to
distant family members describing the last rattle and wheeze of the departed, reverend
lying-in ceremonies and even the keeping of hair and finger nail clippings.

All of this was kyboshed by World War I which killed a million British men and led to
widespread funeral fatigue. Subsequent post-war deaths by influenza made the stiff upper
lip stiffer. People learned to say: “Don’t tell me your troubles, I’ve had mine up to here”
and only now is the nation’s emotional health being re-invented with a more Chaucerian relish.

But don’t tell the press. They would probably still want to shoot a shell-shocked
soldier for “LMF” – lack of moral fibre – along with the counsellor who tries to talk to him or her.

Phillip Hodson is a Fellow of the British Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy

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