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16 July 2021

What online discourse gets wrong about therapy

Online, therapy is prescribed as an emotional cure-all. But this idealised vision removes all nuance from discussions of mental health. 

By Sarah Manavis

When I walked out of therapy at 19 years old, I thought, on some level, that I was fixed. I wasn’t delusional; I knew I had flaws. I just thought I had ironed most of them out. By the last of my six university-sponsored sessions, I didn’t have much left to say, let alone new problems to tread over. I was confident – overconfident, in that smarmy, un-self-aware way – that I had solved the puzzle of myself. 

This was the fourth time I had done therapy – the first three stints occurred during my parents’ drawn-out divorce, my estrangement from my father, and the court-mandated sessions that arose when he wanted that estrangement to end. From these experiences, I took away two things: one, that therapy is where you go to find problems, with the aim to get rid of them. And two (it being the Noughties and early 2010s) that going to therapy admitted an ugly truth about yourself; that it was something to be ashamed of.

But in the past five years, a major shift has occurred in how much we talk about mental health issues. Speaking about going to therapy has become normalised. Jokes about common therapist tics and recurrent therapy conversations regularly go viral because of their relatability. Therapy-speak has become unavoidable online – how we must practise “self-care”, “set boundaries”, and cut out “toxic” people who “fail to serve us”. Now, therapy is so commonplace that the refusal to get therapy is seen by many as a deeply embedded personal flaw. 

There are many benefits of our increased comfort discussing mental health. (There is no denying that it is easier, on the whole, to admit to experiencing anxiety or depression now than it was 15 years ago.) But one downside is becoming increasingly clear: that, in the attempts to to make these conversations accessible, highly complex issues are being oversimplified. And one of the most common oversimplifications is the notion that therapy is a fix – that bad habits (and people) go in, and good ones come out. 

This idea has largely been popularised through tropes perpetuated on social media. Memes such as “men would rather do anything than get therapy” are ubiquitous – often peddled from the accounts of those that could be described as mental health influencers. For example, on Monday (12 July), following fans’ devastation at England’s loss in the Euros final, the author and mental health influencer Matt Haig posted on Twitter and Instagram: “Therapy is cheaper than season tickets lads.” Though it wasn’t clear if he was referencing the racist abuse of players or just the general emotional fallout, both posts were later deleted. Putting aside that therapy is inaccessible to most people (with long waiting lists, it is near-impossible to access it via the NHS, and private therapy is often extortionately expensive), what solution is really being suggested here? And in this context, what does “getting therapy” really mean? 

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[see also: How to fix the mental health crisis]

This idealised view of therapy implicitly suggests that it is a cure-all for any emotional issue. It erases the reality that therapy can involve a multitude of different approaches (to name just a few: cognitive behavioural therapy, talk therapy, exposure therapy, eye movement desensitisation, and reprocessing therapy), and that some types of therapy help some people, but may not do much for others. But crucially, it also suggests therapy is a moral magic wand in a world divided into “good” or “bad” people – that if a bad person gets therapy, they will ultimately recognise and fix their own badness. It implies that therapy is some form of omniscient decider, determining what is “right” and what is “wrong”, and if the people whose behaviour we don’t like simply went to therapy, they would come out as the different people we wish them to be. 

It has taken me until now, at 27 – after starting therapy again 18 months ago – to recognise that therapy is not a problem-to-solution pipeline. (This is something most people who have spent any significant amount of time in therapy would likely be able to tell you as well.) Therapy is a mass untangling of a lifetime’s worth of feelings and behaviour; a body of work that continues to grow every hour. Plenty of still-abusive people have been through therapy; many well-adjusted people haven’t. I’m not sure anyone could ever claim to have completely detangled the mess that is being human – even if they could, I’m not sure that would guarantee any tangible real-world outcomes. There is no model for how a post-therapy person might behave. 

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It may be that many of the people who push these simplified conceptions of therapy have had a fairly simple experience in therapy themselves (though it does seem relevant that Matt Haig has said he’s never had therapy, despite being one of its most well-known advocates).  But while some “solving” can happen for some people in therapy, its purpose is not to fix bad into good, but to examine behaviour with the aim of understanding it. Therapy does not necessitate any form of change. 

The tragedy of how we’ve come to talk about therapy is, that with the right expectations, it can really help people in pain. Personal observation and growth – which many people do get from consistent therapy – can lead to greater contentedness and a more robust sense of self. But the problem with the obfuscation presented on socials and in popular media is that it has failed to show the general public what therapy can really be. And in doing so, it takes a practice that was once hidden and shameful and flattens it into something just as obscure; something that it ultimately is not. 

[see also: The government has failed to deliver on mental health]