Can talking make you better?

CBT does not cure cancer, schizophrenia or arthritis, but it does improve mood, coping and quality o

Professor Ravetz is right. Cognitive behaviour therapy is Labour's new therapy of choice. But why is it suddenly popular in government circles not previously noted for their interest in psychological treatments?

Talking therapies are nothing new, but despite their long history many have struggled to prove themselves in a health service dominated by the economists. Psychoanalysis looks at deep-seated reasons for why we are the way we are - but even if it can answer questions about the human condition, it has not proved a success in treating specific disorders, and often takes years not doing so. In contrast, counselling is usually brief and cheap, but is sometimes not much more than sympathetic listening and empathy. Neither is much good when it comes to treating well-defined conditions such as panic disorder, phobias, obsessions and compulsions.

Cognitive behaviour therapy does represent a genuine advance in the treatment of many conditions. Unlike psychoanalysis it does not depend upon searching inquiries into childhood or early life, or speculative forays into the unconsciousness. CBT is about identifying conscious thoughts - thoughts about dying when having a panic attack, for instance, or about being useless when in the presence of other people. And then it is about how we react to these thoughts and how these behaviours in turn impact back on our thoughts and feelings. Perhaps I was in a road accident some years ago. Now I refuse to get into a car in case it happens again, and get tense and anxious even thinking about it. What I need is to identify my fearful thoughts, understand how they relate to my experiences, and then start a cautious programme of overcoming these fears by gradually spending more and more time in cars, as I learn that it is not inevitable that history will repeat itself. CBT is directive - it is not enough to be kind or supportive, although CBT therapists should be both - what is also needed is clarifying the thoughts which are determining our reactions and planning new behaviours as alternatives to these previously unsuccessful ways of coping or managing symptoms.

CBT has one further advantage over its predecessors. Because it is easier to describe, monitor and evaluate successes and failures, and because it deals in measurable outcomes, it lends itself to the empirical approach. And so there is now a wealth of evidence sufficient to satisfy even the most sceptical health economist that CBT can and does improve outcomes in various disorders.

Randomised controlled trials, which remain the gold standard of evidence, have shown that CBT is effective not just in the classic psychiatric disorders such as post-traumatic stress disorder, major depression, agoraphobia or schizophrenia, but also physical disorders such as cancer or rheumatoid arthritis, and even disorders such as irritable bowel syndrome or chronic fatigue syndrome that lie somewhere in between. Of course, CBT does not cure cancer, schizophrenia or arthritis, but it does improve mood, coping and quality of life.

CBT is not a panacea. And yes, it is trendy. Too trendy - since in the largely unregulated bear pit that are the psychotherapies virtually anyone can, and many do, claim to be carrying out CBT. To become a skilled CBT therapist takes about the same length of time as it does to become a doctor. That raises legitimate questions about the new "Improving Access to Psychological Therapies" initiative. Sometimes known as the Layard initiative, after the economist who has steered the scheme through government, this is intended to add 3,500 new CBT therapists to the NHS workforce.

A predecessor, the "Graduate Psychology Programme", which gave GPs access to psychology graduates who had not completed any clinical training and who became known colloquially as "barefoot psychologists", ran into difficulties since many GPs found that these willing but unskilled personnel lacked the experience and qualifications to make any meaningful impact. The Layard scheme has learned from the past, but will need to ensure that improving access is not at the expense of standards.

Finally, is this really a sly scheme simply to reduce the staggering costs of disability benefits? The answer is no, not directly. The aim is to give everyone who is suffering from clinical depression or an anxiety disorder the option of an effective psychological treatment, regardless of whether they are on benefits or not. However, if that also means that some are able to re-enter the world of work, then so much the better. If there is one thing that has been established by a generation of psychiatric research, it is the strong relationship that exists between mental health and unemployment.

Simon Wessely is head of the department of psychological medicine at the Institute of Psychiatry, King's College London

This article first appeared in the 05 May 2008 issue of the New Statesman, High-street robbery

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The New Times: Brexit, globalisation, the crisis in Labour and the future of the left

With essays by David Miliband, Paul Mason, John Harris, Lisa Nandy, Vince Cable and more.

Once again the “new times” are associated with the ascendancy of the right. The financial crash of 2007-2008 – and the Great Recession and sovereign debt crises that were a consequence of it – were meant to have marked the end of an era of runaway “turbocapitalism”. It never came close to happening. The crash was a crisis of capitalism but not the crisis of capitalism. As Lenin observed, there is “no such thing as an absolutely hopeless situation” for capitalism, and so we discovered again. Instead, the greatest burden of the period of fiscal retrenchment that followed the crash was carried by the poorest in society, those most directly affected by austerity, and this in turn has contributed to a deepening distrust of elites and a wider crisis of governance.

Where are we now and in which direction are we heading?

Some of the contributors to this special issue believe that we have reached the end of the “neoliberal” era. I am more sceptical. In any event, the end of neoliberalism, however you define it, will not lead to a social-democratic revival: it looks as if, in many Western countries, we are entering an age in which centre-left parties cannot form ruling majorities, having leaked support to nationalists, populists and more radical alternatives.

Certainly the British Labour Party, riven by a war between its parliamentary representatives and much of its membership, is in a critical condition. At the same time, Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership has inspired a remarkable re-engagement with left-wing politics, even as his party slumps in the polls. His own views may seem frozen in time, but hundreds of thousands of people, many of them young graduates, have responded to his anti-austerity rhetoric, his candour and his shambolic, unspun style.

The EU referendum, in which as much as one-third of Labour supporters voted for Brexit, exposed another chasm in Labour – this time between educated metropolitan liberals and the more socially conservative white working class on whose loyalty the party has long depended. This no longer looks like a viable election-winning coalition, especially after the collapse of Labour in Scotland and the concomitant rise of nationalism in England.

In Marxism Today’s “New Times” issue of October 1988, Stuart Hall wrote: “The left seems not just displaced by Thatcherism, but disabled, flattened, becalmed by the very prospect of change; afraid of rooting itself in ‘the new’ and unable to make the leap of imagination required to engage the future.” Something similar could be said of the left today as it confronts Brexit, the disunities within the United Kingdom, and, in Theresa May, a prime minister who has indicated that she might be prepared to break with the orthodoxies of the past three decades.

The Labour leadership contest between Corbyn and Owen Smith was largely an exercise in nostalgia, both candidates seeking to revive policies that defined an era of mass production and working-class solidarity when Labour was strong. On matters such as immigration, digital disruption, the new gig economy or the power of networks, they had little to say. They proposed a politics of opposition – against austerity, against grammar schools. But what were they for? Neither man seemed capable of embracing the “leading edge of change” or of making the imaginative leap necessary to engage the future.

So is there a politics of the left that will allow us to ride with the currents of these turbulent “new times” and thus shape rather than be flattened by them? Over the next 34 pages 18 writers, offering many perspectives, attempt to answer this and related questions as they analyse the forces shaping a world in which power is shifting to the East, wars rage unchecked in the Middle East, refugees drown en masse in the Mediterranean, technology is outstripping our capacity to understand it, and globalisation begins to fragment.

— Jason Cowley, Editor 

Tom Kibasi on what the left fails to see

Philip Collins on why it's time for Labour to end its crisis

John Harris on why Labour is losing its heartland

Lisa Nandy on how Labour has been halted and hollowed out

David Runciman on networks and the digital revolution

John Gray on why the right, not the left, has grasped the new times

Mariana Mazzucato on why it's time for progressives to rethink capitalism

Robert Ford on why the left must reckon with the anger of those left behind

Ros Wynne-Jones on the people who need a Labour government most

Gary Gerstle on Corbyn, Sanders and the populist surge

Nick Pearce on why the left is haunted by the ghosts of the 1930s

Paul Mason on why the left must be ready to cause a commotion

Neal Lawson on what the new, 21st-century left needs now

Charles Leadbeater explains why we are all existentialists now

John Bew mourns the lost left

Marc Stears on why democracy is a long, hard, slow business

Vince Cable on how a financial crisis empowered the right

David Miliband on why the left needs to move forward, not back

This article first appeared in the 22 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times