| Family Reflections |


Who can benefit from psychotherapy?


he term psychotherapy refers to a multitude of interventions used to help two groups of people: 1) those with mental health disorders; 2) those with overwhelming emotional challenges.

Mental Health Disorders

Mental health disorders include many biologically based illnesses — such as obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), major depressive episode, eating disorders, anxiety — that interfere with functioning and/or cause significant distress. Some mental health conditions, such as bipolar disorder and schizophrenia, are primarily treated with medication, while psychotherapy is an adjunct treatment. For others, psychotherapy is the primary treatment. For instance, OCD is primarily treated with the psychotherapeutic intervention known as cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT). Without this treatment, OCD can cause significant lifelong suffering and dysfunction, while with treatment, there is a very high rate of recovery.

Similarly, ongoing life-disrupting symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) don’t tend to resolve on their own, while appropriate psychotherapeutic interventions have a high success rate in returning a person to their previous level of functioning and well-being.

Unique therapeutic protocols are employed for each of the different mental health disorders. “Talking” doesn’t cure mental health disorders. A person who suffers from depression or anxiety requires treatments that specifically address the cognitive, emotional, and physical aspects of the disorder. When seeking treatment for a mental health disorder, it’s important to ensure that the practitioner is trained in the appropriate treatment protocols for that condition. If the treatment consists only of talking (i.e., talking about problems at home or work/school while the therapist acknowledges, validates, and comments), it is not a sufficient treatment for actual mental health disorders.

However, “talking therapies” are often used for those who do not suffer from mental health disorders — that is, people who fall into the second group of psychotherapy clients described above: those who are suffering overwhelming emotional challenges.

Overwhelming Emotional Challenges

Everyone has emotional challenges because Hashem has designed life to be very challenging! In fact, people will inevitably be distressed by their current life situations, troubled by their relationships, stressed by their work, family, or friends, or otherwise bothered by problems that leave them feeling down, irritable, or anxious. And yet almost all of these people will be able to manage their distress without needing to access psychotherapy. They will turn to Hashem, to their closest friends and confidants, and to their journals, for help in identifying, clarifying, and resolving their issues. Some will consult their rav or mentors. Some will read books that will inspire solutions. Some will take classes that provide helpful ideas, skills, and information.

People who do well despite life’s problems normally lead a balanced lifestyle that allows for spiritual support, meaningful activities, rewarding work, healthy habits, and social engagement.

Nonetheless, there are certain situations in life that can create overwhelming emotional challenges. In these cases, the ability to talk things through with a highly trained professional listener can prevent intense stress from morphing into disordered mental and/or physical health. No one should have to face their serious challenges alone. Being able to talk — privately and safely — when the issues are big, is essential. A spouse is facing serious legal charges or is engaging in questionable interpersonal behavior? We need someone to talk to. A serious, not yet public, medical situation is evolving? We need someone to talk to. A child is in crisis, a marriage is unraveling, a financial disaster is unfolding... there are times when we need someone to talk to.

Suffering alone is unsafe and unhealthy. We are enjoined by King Shlomo (Mishlei 1:6) to, if necessary, “buy a friend” for ourselves. Paying a qualified, trained listener is an important and valuable way of safeguarding our health. The caveat is to understand that the “talking cure” of psychotherapy is really a “listening cure.” The job of the professional psychotherapist is to skillfully help the client release intense stress through the employment of a variety of specific tools designed to address cognitive and emotional impediments to well-being. Giving advice is the job of a lawyer, business consultant, fashion consultant, or other expert in a particular field; it’s not what psychotherapists do. However, when performed correctly, psychotherapy releases overwhelming emotional strain and is consequently one of the greatest gifts that Hashem has made available to us in our time.


(Originally featured in Family First, Issue 899)

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