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21 July 2003updated 24 Sep 2015 10:16am

No tears please, we’re British

The empire needed upper lips to be stiff but now we can all loosen up a bit - and should do, argues

By Phillip Hodson

There are roughly 30,000 fully qualified psychotherapists, compared with just 11,000 vicars. We are in the middle of a therapy boom. In just 12 years, the membership of my profes-sional organisation, the British Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy (or BACP), has grown by 160 per cent. Yet though even Hillary Rodham Clinton may concede that “counselling saved my marriage”, the media have never been so hostile to talking treatments.

According to the Daily Mail: “Counsellors are always trying to give people reasons to feel depressed, inadequate or a failure.” When not doing that, “counsellors tend to undermine the strength of the human character”. Worse, “counselling prevents the emotional recovery of people in distress”. The Mail once asked readers: “How on earth did we get through World War II without a whole army of bereavement counsellors on hand?”

The answer is at great cost and lasting damage to most British families. If you deconstruct the Mail‘s almost weekly propaganda against the new “emotionalism”, you will find a conjuror’s prestidigitation but no persuasive evidence.

Last month, under the headline “Counselling can worsen pain of disasters”, its science correspondent reported: “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 count. The truthful headline would have read: “Counselling can lessen the pain of disasters”.

When passions beyond sex and violence are displayed, the tabloids appear to fret, deriding the tears both of Greg Rusedski when he lost at Wimbledon and Roger Federer when he won it. They require the lachrymose to keep it to themselves, as the curmudgeonly Mail columnist Lynda Lee-Potter recently explained. “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 the work-shy.” This was after a coach crash in the Alps that killed three Bolton pupils on a school holiday.

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The Sunday Times‘s health correspondent wrote two articles last March seeking to show that “repression is good for you” (and counselling bad), based on the work of the celebrated London psychiatrist Professor Simon Wessely. After the first article, Wessely said: “I was misquoted; I made no comments about counselling as such; I am very strongly in favour of psychological treatments.” Still, you may be relieved to learn that in the second article the writer concluded that trauma remains “always best avoided”.

Some of us may have begun to suspect that there is a plot by the Ministry of Defence to toughen the nation’s sinews as a prelude to bloodshed. Yet a more fundamental shift in social attitudes and values appears to fuel the media abreaction to the therapy boom. The real problem is that our news hounds remain doggedly nationalist, even imperialist. Their nose is pointing at the bigger pic-ture 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”? For them, the darkest hour remains the unprecedented outpouring of public grief following the death of Diana, when their covert advice to the nation was: “Pull yourself together.”

In a 24/7 economy, where families are falling apart and personal morality is just a menu, therapy is popular because it offers a better answer than “pull yourself together”. There is sound evidence (for example, in the British Medical Journal, 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. The British have finally learnt 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. 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. The stiff upper lip – think of the film Zulu and the alien calmness under attack of the thin red line of Tommies as they hold off and defeat a zillion Zulus – 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 off the colonial production lines to serve the empire of their clinically depressed queen. That’s where the story 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, reverent lying-in ceremonies and even the keeping of hair and fingernail clippings. All of this was kiboshed by the First World War, which killed a million British men and led to funeral fatigue.

Subsequent postwar deaths by influenza made the stiff upper lip even stiffer. People learnt 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 reinvented with a more Chaucerian relish. But sections of the press would still prefer to shoot any shell-shocked soldier for “LMF” (lack of moral fibre) – along with the counsellor who tries to talk to him.

Phillip Hodson is a fellow of the BACP

Copyright Phillip Hodson, 2003

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