Healers who harm

Bad Therapy is a call to resist the current belief that abnormality is the new normal

This article is taken from the March 2024 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issues for just £10.

A few years ago, during a very  intense session of expert procrastination, I noticed that the algorithm of my YouTube ads pushed a new sort of service. BetterHelp, the presenter gleefully repeated, aimed at delivering a “personalised therapy for a happier you”. Great life hacks at your fingertips, any time, anywhere. Because “you deserve to be happy”.

Many yearn for a quick fix while coping with the ups and downs of postmodern life. But the aggressively jovial BetterHelp marketing was puzzling. What was this service selling that a pint at the pub with friends couldn’t provide?

Bad Therapy: Why The Kids Aren’t Growing Up
Abigail Shrier
(Swift, £20)

There’s something fishy in this rebranding of therapy, which seeks to destigmatise the practice by making it look laid-back and essential to everyday life. The issue is not that mental health is made more accessible, quite the contrary. However, therapy as a conversation piece has consequences: psychology jargon is now everywhere, transforming almost any issue into unspoken trauma, diagnosis, and wellness necessities. And yet, as Abigail Shrier reveals in Bad Therapy, this is but the tip of the iceberg.

In her earlier work Irreversible Damage (2020), she showed how the goods and evils of therapy emerged as a thread to understand the surge in “gender dysphoria” referrals. She now dives deeper into the mental health establishment from a US perspective. The focus of Bad Therapy falls on the most vulnerable among us — children and teenagers. Shrier convincingly demonstrates that the very experts who claim to tackle the “mental health crisis” in the West in fact often cultivate it.

This doesn’t mean that all therapists are malign, or people shouldn’t look for help — Shrier herself is open about her own experience of therapy. But then, children are not equipped, as adults generally are, to understand fully what therapy does.

Chasing positivity tends to make children more depressed. Stressing the almighty importance of feelings tends to make them too sensitive. Always affirming and accommodating their worries makes them more salient. Habituating the youth to externalise their “locus of control” produces adults who fail at adulthood. Who knew?

Jean-Jacques Rousseau, a charlatan therapist avant la lettre, argued that to be healthy one must learn self-understanding. But Rousseau’s argument existed within a larger paradox of his own making, namely that one man’s meat is another’s poison. Evil and cure are sometimes interchangeable or, worse, indistinguishable. Shrier opens her analysis with the same observation: “healers can harm”. As it turns out, they often do.

The influence of tech on the system makes things worse

In the lucrative business of mental health, the commonest side-effect of therapy is … more therapy. Despite the credo of expertise that argues in favour of science and measurable data, the sophistication of therapy has led to more depression and anxiety, with little effort to track long-term results. The recent push for “climate-focus therapy” (whatever that is) is a “choice” made by “experts”, Shrier tells us, that validates and reinforces children’s terrors.

Her insightful interviews outline serious issues in the school setting, where “therapists and non-therapists diagnose kids liberally”. She shows that exigencies and accommodations on behalf of “wellness” create a burden for everyone, preventing teachers from doing their jobs.

One of Shrier’s most heartbreaking revelations is showing how the system tends to “take parents hostage”. The principle of safeguarding is turned on its head and, more often than not, “experts” encourage information to be held back from parents for their children’s sake. By attacking the natural and fundamental relationship between parents and offspring, “bad therapy” emerges as a sort of new bio-power, which encourages intrusive and harmful methods.

The influence of tech on the system makes things worse. Therapy on phones, as promoted by companies such as BetterHelp, is the “ultimate morphine drip”. “Thanks to artificial intelligence,” Shrier writes, “the rain shower may soon become a flash flood.” AI is increasingly used to gauge the state of children’s presumed loneliness and inability to fit in socially. Mental health algorithms judge as suspicious any denial of one’s natural state of depression.

Too many children and teenagers seem to believe that good mental health is something you “work on” or, to put it more crudely, that you purchase. It is not something they believe can simply arise from living a good, well-balanced life.

Bad Therapy reads as a call to resist the current belief that abnormality is the new normal. Shrier reaffirms the value of resilience, healthy relationships, and the old wisdom that “maybe there’s nothing wrong with our kids”. Of course, in a society that has come to glamorise therapy, that is rather harder to sell.

Enjoying The Critic online? It's even better in print

Try five issues of Britain’s newest magazine for £10

Critic magazine cover