Britons are going to therapy in record numbers

But while embracing our emotions can be a good thing, not all counselling is equal

Without therapy, 40-year-old Mandie Holgate believes that she would be dead. "My bout of depression and anxiety was both sudden and severe and caused me to make two attempts on my own life, as well as to self-harm. At one point, I couldn't even leave the house," says Holgate, who is a mother of two.

Holgate still doesn't know what triggered her depression. "But I do know that anti-depressants didn't work, while after just four sessions of cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT), I was on my way to realising that I didn't have to be trapped in these dark thought processes."

More of us than ever have had therapy, according to a new study, which reveals that more than a quarter (28 per cent) of people in the UK have consulted a counsellor or psychotherapist, compared to just one in five people in 2010.

Women are most likely to opt for talking therapies, according to the Ipsos MORI poll for the British Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy (BACP), while those aged between 35 and 44 are the biggest users.

"I don't think it's that more of us are unhappy. I just think it shows that the stigma attached to counselling has dramatically diminished," says BACP governor, Dr Andrew Reeves.

Whether someone like Holgate feels it has prevented her from taking her own life, or whether someone needs it to help improve the quality of their relationships, it's increasingly considered an ordinary, everyday activity, he says.

Reeves adds that the greater awareness of mental health issues, largely thanks to high profile people such as Alastair Campbell speaking out about it, is also relevant. "While, traditionally, things got worse and worse until the GP eventually prescribed medication, I think this growing awareness has made people much more likely to recognise and acknowledge their own mental health problems and be more proactive in seeking support at an earlier stage."

Therapy is no longer perceived as being the preserve of the very rich, he adds. "The fact that most people in the UK have either had therapy themselves or know someone who has, suggests it's become truly mainstream," he explains, pointing out that the days of 18-month waiting lists for therapy on the NHS are over. "You can get to see someone much quicker than you used to be able to, although that is usually CBT, which isn't for everyone."

But, while the increase in therapy is considered a good thing by many, others are more sceptical. "There are estimates that a million patients have gone through CBT on the NHS and, although it's good that significant numbers of people have had therapy when they might otherwise have seen nobody, the problem is that there's no evidence CBT works in the long-term," insists Oliver James, clinical child psychologist. "So the figures I'd like to see are of people getting access to proper therapy, which looks at childhood causes and in which the relationship with the therapist is recognised as the key ingredient to change. At the moment, that kind of therapy remains out of reach, financially, to most people."

Meanwhile, Phillip Hodson, a psychotherapist from the UK Council for Psychotherapy, is worried that some people seek therapy as a short-cut to euphoria. "Of course it's a good thing that there are more resources to assist people with problems, but we don't want to counsel everything that moves," he says. "There are people who need to understand that life does come with some inevitable unhappiness and that bereavement, for example, is something you can't go round but through."

Hodson believes that Americanisation is at play. "America seems to invent a condition for practically any state of mind. Indeed, they have created anxiety syndromes that simply mean you're having a tough day. But because we have picked up on their culture, we can't fail to be influenced by them. It's a good thing that more people who need it are accessing therapy, but what we don't want is a culture that adopts therapy as a religion."

Chartered clinical psychologist Dr Hugh Koch, agrees. "I'd like to see the promotion of therapy balanced by more information about the kind of help you can find in self-help books, community groups, talking with friends, as well as more emphasis on people preparing for life's inevitable stresses such as redundancy."

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