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Private Lives: Unhappy? Why not ditch the analyst

IS THE pendulum finally swinging the other way for therapy and counselling? Even Woody Allen appears to have gone off the boil. In a recent interview with Michael Parkinson he revealed he's finally given up his years and years of analysis and when asked how much it had helped he actually hesitated. "A little bit," he said, grudgingly. "A little bit. About this much." And he opened his fingers about an inch apart.

Of course, there are statistics that show that counselling and therapy can be helpful. Increasingly it can also be proved to be damaging. Certainly what we know for certain is that counselling is a tremendously chancy business.

"Counselling after traumatic events can be harmful," said a psychiatrist, Doctor Martin Deahl after a study of UN peacekeeping troops in Bosnia showed that Post Traumatic Stress Disorder rates were the same whether the men received counselling or not. Other research carried out by the NHS itself has shown that counselling offers no long-term benefit. Sociologist Dr Frank Furedi responded to this by saying: "Counselling has created a damaging culture of dependency." A study at Vanderbilt University showed that psychotherapists admit that up to six per cent of their patients' "lasting deterioration" is directly attributable to therapy.

"Professional counselling is largely a waste of time and does more to boost the ego of the counsellor than to help the victim," said Professor Yvonne McEwan at a European trauma conference.

"Counselling is ethically bankrupt and is practiced by over-zealous, ignorant people who are feeding their own egos," she said. Doctor David Smith, a speaker at the forthcoming Evolution and Psychotherapy conference in London, will argue that "all psychotherapists have an evolved tendency to unconsciously deceive and exploit their patients." And so on.

Nearly half of England's GP practices offer counselling on the NHS. An estimated 100,000 people use talking therapy every year, but it's probably a lot more considering that the membership of the UK Register of Counsellors has 1,700 members nationwide and one figure puts the number of unregistered counsellors as many as 25,000. These could of course include nurses and people who've done only short courses, but there's no question that this figure also includes hundreds of total charlatans.

You can be a murderer, a mini-cab-driver, a paedophile, an airhead housewife with nothing to do, put a brass plaque on your door and call yourself a counsellor. People who pretend to be doctors and tinker about with people's bodies commit a criminal act; people who call themselves counsellors, psychotherapists and analysts who tinker around with your emotions need have no qualifications whatsoever and their "clients" have no legal redress.

And even if you go to a trained counsellor what can you expect? One problem is that the process is rarely explained at the outset. And after thirty years of having counselling, psychotherapy, analysis and group therapy, it's only now that I'm starting to understand how it's meant to work. And "meant" is the word. All counselling practices, from Gestalt, to Jungian, to Freudian, to Transpersonal, are only theories after all. None of them have ever been proven to work. And when people do seem to get better, counsellors and therapists never take into account the proven fact that the majority of symptoms of neurosis go away with time, untreated.

On the whole, counselling is a silent business. From the moment you arrive, you're faced with a person in a chair who usually says very little. You don't know how the whole thing is meant to work. It's like being told to speak French without being taught any of the grammar and without anyone speaking it. You just jabber on hoping you're getting it right and only occasionally being told you've got the wrong word but never told the right one.

I remember seeing a psychotherapist for years who, if I was silent, would say I was "hostile." Firstly, since I never understood, because I was never told, that this was just an objective comment rather than a criticism, I would come away feeling guilty and full of self-loathing, and would attend follow-up sessions by trying to be tremendously nice, quite naturally; secondly it never occurred to me that she was wrong. I never felt hostile, but because she said I felt hostile, I believed it. She encouraged me to express my anger, despite over 400 pieces of published study which concluded that showing anger only makes people more angry, not better.

Because you see a counsellor at a time when you are at your most vulnerable, it's extremely easy to become dependent on one and forget that counselling is a service industry. In truth, you, the client, are in charge. You are paying the money. But before too long most clients become not only very emotionally dependent on their counsellors, but can actually become addicted to them, and tend to see what they say as true, whether it is or not. Perfectly normal, functioning adults are encouraged to dwell on their weakness rather than their strengths, which, far from making them more capable and happier, make them anxious and weak, and unable to take decisions without first checking with their counsellors.

When you confide a problem to a friend, you get help from hearing about their experiences. You get sympathetic feedback. You usually get love, as well. You may also get good advice. And while a friend will always be willing to share problems, which is always healing, a counsellor will never divulge his or her own anxieties. And although some appear to be caring, you never know whether you are getting real concern or if it's because you are paying them. And paying them makes it extra difficult to get away from them. If they say they don't think you're ready to leave, are they motivated by genuine concern for your welfare or because they don't want to lose pounds 50 a week? Do they, indeed, ever quite know themselves?

We are not only surrounded by counsellors - grief counsellors, stress counsellors, sexual abuse counsellors, Aids counsellors, victim support counsellors, post-traumatic distress counsellors - but so many people are training to be counsellors these days, particularly middle-aged women who take it up after their children have flown the nest, that there are actually more trainee counsellors these days than clients.

There are no less than an estimated 545 organisations offering training for counselling. And although all trained counsellors and therapists are meant to have been through some kind of therapy themselves to turn them into well-adjusted, whole people, it's arguable whether true wisdom can ever be taught. I can think of at least four counsellors I know personally, three of whom are barking mad themselves and live shambolic lifestyles, and one of whom is totally unsympathetic and lacking an ounce of kindness.

One told me with great glee while she was starting her practice that she was on the verge of solving a couple's terrible sex-problem. "She won't have sex because she says her hands always feel too cold in bed," she said. "I discovered that all the kitchen implements, including the cutlery and saucepans, had been chosen by his ex-girlfriend. So her hands were `cold' after she'd touched them - and so was she - because she felt the ex-girlfriend's presence. We're working through that one at the moment." Now was this a valid theory? Or was it just rubbish, a way of explaining a situation in which a girl simply didn't fancy her partner? Or just had a low sex-drive?

Then there's counsellors' general attitude to medication. Depression can not only be helped by drugs but in many cases completely cured by them. Despite the fact that counselling will no more help the problem than it will help diabetes, many counsellors and therapists are still ruthlessly anti-drug. "Of course drugs blot out your feelings," said one counsellor to me, "so they will almost certainly be hindering our work."

"That's not true," said the psychiatrist. "Often, taking drugs can lift a depression and allow the person to feel again, without the need of counselling, rather than the reverse." "What's the importance of feelings?" said another therapist. "All feelings are triggered by thoughts. Change the thought and you will change the feeling. You must concentrate on thought, not feeling." Who is one to believe?

Not only that, but we ourselves are starting to use the language of counselling rather than love in our daily lives. We ask for help, comfort and a hug from a friend and she will start asking whether our unhappiness has anything to do with our childhood. Worse, she will suggest we see a counsellor. The government has produced a report which suggests that everyone should have a period of counselling before they get divorced, which is pretty cheeky. The language of counselling is creeping into our daily lives like a new religion. I actually find it quite sinister. If Relate says something's right, it must be right. But maybe it's not right. Maybe it's wrong.

Over the years, I have received some help from counsellors and therapists, but mainly from ones who offer short-term treatments or use cognitive therapy or behavioural therapy, both of which are designed to get you back on your feet as quickly as possible.

Interestingly, the efficacy of these last two is borne out by research. But I have also been damaged by some and believe they have encouraged a "poor me" attitude to life. And in the end, I can't help feeling: for thousands and thousands of years we never needed counsellors, so why do we need them now?