Steve Almond, an author and MFA, says that writing workshops are taking the place of therapy sessions in modern culture.
Writing in the March 23 edition of The New York Times, the frequent workshop instructor says that over the years he’s seen people coming into MFA programs and writing workshops not to learn crafts, but to have a chance to tell their stories and express their search for a meaningful life.
“In each case,” he says, “what strikes me aren’t the particulars (about the students) — age, attitude, ambitions — so much as their essential motive. What they really want isn’t fame or fortune but permission to articulate feelings that were somehow off limits within the fragile habitat of their families. They are hoping to find, by means of literary art, braver and more-forgiving versions of themselves.”
Once upon a time, they might have gone to therapy to do that. They still might, he suggests, but therapy has moved away from them:
“The waning of psychotherapy has clear roots in the rise of psychopharmacology. Drug companies have been hard at work over the past three decades, marketing meds to troubleshoot our faulty brain chemistry. As managed care has compelled more and more psychiatrists to trade their notebooks for prescription pads, the classic image of the patient on the couch has been replaced by a man with a pill in his palm.”
This isn’t news to existential-humanistic therapists: nor is the idea that people will seek out meaning for their lives through the arts. In fact, Rollo May and Tom Greening once proposed that licensing exams for therapists should include sections on art, history, and culture.
But if the trend Almond is seeing is in fact correct, then it should serve as a message to the “mainstream” establishments in psychology and psychiatry: that even perfectly “healthy” people … people who are not in treatment, who have no biological or chemical symptoms … are still looking for ways to understand their lives. They still have a need to find meaning in their experiences and engage their better natures: they are striving for “self-actualization.”
Mainstream psychology, of course, claims that there is no such thing as self-actualization. There are only symptoms, which result from biological errors, that get fixed through drug or cognitive-behaviorist interventions. This is absurd on its face – but still the excuse insurance companies use to stop covering psychodynamic therapy.
Yet here we have concrete evidence that if people can’t get access to psychodynamic therapy, they’ll actively look for something that can provide a similar process. Something that allows them to find new ways to express their lives and search for meaning.
Surely even the most vulgar of “market oriented psychologists” must recognize there is a need here. Even if you can’t call it a “human need,” which you should, it’s a demand by the people we purport to serve and support.
The question then is: do these millions of people deserve to have qualified experts working with them?
Trained professionals who know how to establish a bond with patients, to get past defense mechanisms and avoidance, to examine big questions in accessible ways, to recognize systemic issues, and to be on the look out for those occasions when there really are biological agents at play: Therapists like that would be really, really, useful to people who are looking for ways to self-actualize.
The APA (both of them) need to recognize what’s happening here. The public wants therapists who can work with people, not symptoms. It has an obligation to make sure they’re available and supported in the crucial work they do.
Remembering why he became an MFA in the first place, Almond recalls: “We were writing to confront what Faulkner called ‘the human heart in conflict with itself.’ And not just any hearts. Our hearts.”
Art can do that. Therapy can do that. Drugs and cognitive behaviorism cannot.
— Benjamin Wachs
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