Therapy and Politics – Acknowledging the Relationship and Owning the Discomfort

Here we are on the brink of one of the most extraordinary and important elections for a generation. Our society is almost unrecognisable from that of twenty years ago, as we were approaching the millennium. Technology now connects us inextricably, and I think that this ability to connect with one another has driven great movements, promoting voices and/or influencing positive policy change for historically oppressed groups including LGBTQ+ communities and people of colour. Alongside this has been the undeniable rise of right-wing politics in the mainstream, Trump, Johnson and Farage gaining popularity, and right-wing ideas influencing the direction of this country, from Brexit to the NHS.

The questions that I can see being mooted amongst therapists, both overtly, and more indirectly, are: what role does politics have for therapy and for therapists? Should we, and indeed can we, separate ourselves from the political? What impact does our political activity have on clients?

I see a great deal of discomfort on therapist forums as we broach the political. Are we “sullying” the profession by talking about party politics? Is being vocal about our political allegiances going to be damaging to our clients? Is there an ethical difference, for example, between my saying “I am anti-austerity.” and saying “I am going to vote Labour.”? Is one less ‘professional’ to admit to than the other? Are they both okay? Or should we not be talking about politics at all?

I might as well come right out and say it: my personal opinion is that we cannot separate the political from the professional. It is my view that in counselling and psychotherapy, the political runs to the very heart of what we do.

Austerity impacts on the lives of clients, it impacts on the counselling services on offer, and it impacts on the lives of therapists too.

IAPT is political. We need to talk about the fact that, according to a new survey, 41% of IAPT workers are being asked to manipulate performance data. All of this is inherently political and if we are not talking about it, we are missing an opportunity to challenge harms which are being enacted on clients and on the profession.

The voluntary culture of counselling is political, as is the accreditation of uncapped courses. SCoPEd is extremely political. Ethics, and the therapeutic values we uphold, from autonomy to authenticity to respect are steeped in politics. This profession does not exist in a vacuum, it exists in a deeply political context.

BUT I have experienced significant discomfort about it. And I am not alone. When I trained as a therapist, I probably thought to myself “It is best that my clients never know my political views, and therefore they should not be shared publicly”. And while, of course, a therapy session is not an appropriate place to whip out a party political leaflet, I have a much more nuanced view of how we manage the uncomfortable marriage of therapeutic neutrality (if such a thing exists, or even ought to exist), and our wider political selves.

My clients, past, present or future, could Google me. If they did, they would probably read about my views on SCoPEd. They would probably read that I oppose it on the grounds that it promotes inequality, and further espouses an elitism, which I believe already exists in the profession. They would read that I disagree with the way in which it encourages a system of unpaid labour post-qualification, and they could probably make some pretty accurate assumptions about my political views.

They might also note that I have joined the PCSR steering group, an organisation whose stated aims include challenging racism, sexism, homophobia, classism and all discrimination, as well as “developing ideas about how economic, political, ecological and cultural issues can be integrated into theory and practice”.

These are authentic parts of who I am, and they follow me into the therapy room whether I choose to hide them or not.

So no, I don’t introduce myself to clients by outlining my political opinions, and no, I do not judge clients who express different views to my own. But I acknowledge that we all see political issues in the therapy room every day. From the economic, to the social, to national politics, it appears in the therapeutic relationship and we work with it in our practices whether we name it or not.

Recently, when the Met police were outrageously arresting Extinction Rebellion protestors engaged in peaceful protest, UKCP erroneously released a statement which suggested that members who were arrested for peaceful protest could be bringing the profession into disrepute. This created understandable challenge from members, and the UKCP later said that the statement had been sent out in error. It seems to me that the fact that it was written at all says enough about the attitude to activism by some in the profession, particularly certain professional bodies. Incidentally, BACP were unable to categorically state that arrest for peaceful protest would not bring the profession into disrepute, whereas NCS were immediately forthcoming with a categorical statement that arrest for peaceful protest would not constitute disrepute.

I am concerned about these mixed messages, and lack of clarity, not least because autonomy and authenticity are central values, and ‘professionalism’ in counselling and psychotherapy needs to embody the values we espouse, unequivocally. Professionalism must not become synonymous with compliance. If we were not able to challenge injustice, or question the status quo, our profession would not be able to move forward at all. Indeed, there would have been no Carl Rogers, whose development of person centred therapy challenged psychoanalytic dominance and was borne of a period of political and social change. Carl Rogers described himself as a rebel, and his courage, integrity and tenacity to challenge the status quo is widely celebrated. In my opinion, now is not the time to lose that courage.

I think this is a difficult area for many therapists and what I have seen recently expressed about party politics seems to confirm this (not to mention the response by many to the challenge to the SCoPEd framework). I think we need to own that discomfort, name it and feel it, but we also need to acknowledge the centrality of politics to our profession, how it impacts us at every level. And therapists as a whole need to be talking about it. We don’t have to agree, but we need to be able to discuss. If we ignore politics, it won’t cease to exist, in therapy or in our lives.

So this is an invitation to therapists, and clients, and supervisors, and tutors (and whoever else is uncomfortably straddling political spheres and the world of counselling and psychotherapy) to see, touch, explore and own the huge area on the Venn diagram where these worlds overlap. It’s okay to talk about it, as much or as little as feels comfortable, it’s important to understand it, and in my view, it’s vital we don’t pretend that it doesn’t exist.

2 thoughts on “Therapy and Politics – Acknowledging the Relationship and Owning the Discomfort”

  1. This article is well written by Erin Stevens with thought provoking views within the context of the current discourse. I am particularly struck by the words; “Professionalism must not become synonymous with compliance. If we were not able to challenge injustice, or question the status quo, our profession would not be able to move forward at all”.
    We are expected to continually comply with a framework (Bacp) that is unclear, ambiguous and inconsistently applied if we wish to be considered ‘professional’. To be clear, it is all wishy washy nonsense.
    The Bacp have policies and procedures that do not follow due process, natural justice and moreover, they treat their members with contempt when they fail to support them, guide them through ethical landscapes or apply principles fairly and accurately based on robust evidence and exemplary practice. They fail to respond to questions raised and sit on their own fences, which is beneath my contempt.
    The bodies are registered as charities but are not charitable. Least of all, do they support Therapists in their plight to earn a living, whilst helping others.
    It is all political for those who are enlightened enough to realise and we are silenced by the threat of bringing the profession into disrepute in a myriad of ways that stuns us into dumbness.

    Liked by 1 person

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