Years ago I wrote an essay about the death of psychotherapy. While I did not state that psychotherapy is currently dead, I did state that much of it might die in the wake of advances in understanding the neurobiology of psychological disorders. It will take decades for these advances to occur (if they ever do) so this post will now serve to balance my post from years ago.
I’m going to start with a story about two people (these are based on real events but names, situations, and identifying details have been changed to protect confidentiality). Jim was convicted of a violent crime and spent a number of years in prison. He was required to attend treatment throughout his years in prison – anger management and other therapies. He had a history of alcohol and drug abuse. A while after he got out of prison, he started therapy again to help him through some difficulties, including his experiences with homelessness. Jim was a very pleasant person to interact with; he was well-read and insightful. He was trying to improve his life.
The second person was named Frank. He was also homeless but was staying with a friend. He had past drug and alcohol abuse but had been free from drugs for about a year. He was anxious, paranoid, and not the most pleasant person to interact with. He had never received treatment for depression, which he experienced chronically and severely. He exhibited little insight into his problems. He thought the negative events in his life were all someone or something else’s fault.
The first patient had learned a lot from his psychotherapy over the years. The second never had therapy. While they were very different people, they experienced similar challenges and psychological issues over the years. Without disregarding individual differences, the patient who had had years of therapy had a lot of insight and self-knowledge but the other patient had very little.
Jim had been a violent man but over the years and through therapy, he learned a great deal of self-control and restraint. Psychotropic medications could not have taught Jim this. For him, psychotherapy was highly successful. Without out it he might not have been the pleasant person that he was.
Therapy teaches you skills; it gives you tools to deal with maladaptive thoughts and behaviors. It allows you opportunity to sort through your experiences and thoughts in a safe place. It allows to to talk to someone else without being judged. Therapy is thus treatment and education. It can have as strong or stronger effects on mood and behavior as medications and the benefits can last longer. Understanding biology is necessary to understand behavior but it is not sufficient to explain all behavior, at least not with our current knowledge. Will we ever had sufficiently advanced knowledge of neuroscience and biology to no longer need psychotherapy? I don’t know but if we do, it won’t happen for many years.