Britain off the couch

Observations on therapy

In recent years, the British have been characterised as narcissistic, therapy-obsessed loners. So, the latest British Social Attitudes survey makes particularly cheerful reading. It seems that while we acknowledge that it's good to talk, the majority of us rely on friends and family for emotional support, rather than therapists or counsellors. Just 16 per cent of us have ever visited a listening professional, whereas 70 per cent have at least three friends or relatives to turn to for a sympathetic ear.

These findings are in marked contrast to the damning assessments of social scientists such as Frank Furedi, whose Therapy Culture, a bleak but influential analysis of the UK's growing obsession with emotional well-being, was first published in 2003. Furedi argued with curmudgeonly vigour that Britain's once admirably stiff upper lip had softened, and warned that by drafting in "an army of counsellors" to provide the support and advice we might once have looked for from family and friends, we have been allowing our personal relationships to crumble.

Supporters applauded this scathing analysis of self-absorption; critics defended the social benefits of discussing personal problems. What nobody questioned, though, was whether we were really living in the therapy culture Furedi describes.

Judging by the findings of the British Social Attitudes researchers, the answer is an emphatic "no". We have become a lot less reserved than we were: two-thirds of us believe that talking about feelings is important, and the same proportion think we do it more than we used to. But while 40 per cent of us have discussed our mental wellbeing with a healthcare professional at some time, in the vast majority of cases the professional in question has been a GP, not a therapist.

Meanwhile, most people have multiple sources of informal support. In fact, the survey found more of its subjects - around 45 per cent - had discussed their worries with a friend or relative in the previous month than had ever used formal emotional support.

In addition, those who had seen a therapist were more likely to talk to friends and family than those who had not. So much for therapists having replaced personal relationships. Futhermore, there is little indication that we are about to start what the survey calls "an inevitable march towards the therapeutic". The under-25s are less interested in seeking therapy than any other age group, as well as having the highest levels of contact with friends and family.

All in all, we appear to be a friendlier and more emotionally robust bunch than some suggest - something from which both advocates and detractors of therapy can take heart. And in financially straitened times, it is good to know that most of us have ways to sort out our personal problems for free.

"British Social Attitudes: the 25th Report" 2008/2009 is published by Sage for the National Centre for Social Research (£50)

This article first appeared in the 02 February 2009 issue of the New Statesman, Interview: Alistair Darling