This week we were given a series of questions about how counselling is portrayed in the media, in particular magazine and newspaper problem pages and TV shows such as Oprah and Jeremy Kyle.
Here are the two problems from “Agony Aunts” I have chosen to look at; One from a “lowbrow” newspaper and one from a “highbrow” newspaper.
The first problem is a “Dear Deidre” taken from Sunday 18th February’s edition of The Sun on Sunday.
The letter is from a man that is complaining that his girlfriend only wants to have sex with him when they are trying for a baby – he wants to have recreational sex, not just the functional kind. The advice given assumes the problem is with miscommunication, and lack of understanding. It may be the editing, but I don’t understand what Deirdre means when she writes that maybe his girlfriend cannot understand why he feels he should wait. I feel like we are missing an important aspect of his letter, and thus his point of view, which in the version printed only says that he might want more children, but not right now. Perhaps it is the brevity of the letter and the reply due to space restrictions, but I do feel like more information is needed.
The advice given to this man’s quandary (as well as a lot of the advice given to other letters on this particular problem page) revolves around the advice-seekers giving serious thought to their problems and talking things through with the other party, then waiting for a bit to see if things got better. This suggests that communication in the form of an open and honest conversation would be therapeutic, as well being an avenue towards empathic understanding. The page also included a lot of phone numbers for helplines and website addresses for fact sheets concerning all manner of relationship advice.
For me, if a client came to me with this problem then I would be inclined to explore his thoughts and feelings towards his partner in more depth, as well as his thoughts on not wanting any more children just yet. I also feel he may have his answer but is blind to it. He knows his partner is not always in the mood, and that she doesn’t feel he is always there for her emotionally; He says he is doing his best in this regard, but his suggesting he doesn’t want to live his whole life without sex is very short-sighted. His partner could very well be reacting to him and his behaviour, and his attitude towards her.
I would like to speak to his partner as well, to get her point of view and fully understand where she is coming from. And while I have no experience of couples counselling, I would like to practise it in the future, and I feel that having a session with the two of them together to see how they interact with each other would be immensely helpful.
The second problem is answered by Mariella Frostrup and was taken from the Sunday 18th February edition of The Observer.
The letter is from a woman whose husband suddenly died just over a year ago and has fallen for someone else, and her son has taken umbrage to this new relationship.
I was going to stick the problems to the page, but after I had cut them out I realised I had no idea how much page I would need because the size of the screen is different to the size of the newspaper clippings, so I scanned them and put a copy of the digital files in the document instead – and because of this you cannot see the large picture of Mariella above the text. Or the rather largely written “ASK MARIELLA”. Those two elements give the impression that she is very proud to be giving advice to people. Or she’s trying to make it about herself rather than the problem.
Compared to the problem in the “lowbrow” paper, this one is very long-winded and verbose. The answer is, after taking the different font sizes into consideration, four or five times as long as the initial question. This also gives the impression that the advice-giver is very taken with her personal point of view. She does seem to speak from experience in several points, speaking of her heartbreak when her son dumped her for a teenage siren despite their “special relationship”, as will all boys to all mothers when it suits them. I think she does a good job of trying to be an agent of empathic understanding by guessing how the advice-seeker’s son is feeling, why he is acting in such a manner, and why he is so opposed to her new lover – Mariella is attempting to give the lady a perspective into how and why her son is behaving as he is.
Personally, I feel like there are a lot of assumptions made by the advice-givers on these problem pages. The other people involved in the problems are never consulted. Their points of view and motivations are presented by the advice-seeker, very much through their frame of reference, and they seem to be based on emotionally fuelled outbursts at best and pure speculative guesswork at worst. Mariella has a go at trying to work out why the boy is acting as he is, but she could be way off. In the end, it is suggested that the advice-seeker invite his sisters to talk him around on her behalf, to enjoy her new relationship, and simply wait it out rather than rock the boat by giving in to her son’s ultimatum. The plan that Mariella has suggested may be perfectly acceptable and it could work out great, but the problem I have is that it is someone else’s plan of action. If the advice-seeker had come to counselling instead of asking a celebrity, she could have come up with a different plan of action.
Thinking a bit deeper about the problem, it seems like it could be a variation of the Oedipus complex. The son, through sheer will, has removed the Father from the equation (in reality the Father has removed himself due to his hard drinking, but I’m sure the boy’s unconscious does not see it that way). The boy thought he had emerged victorious and that he now has his Mother all to himself. But then – along comes another man, a new Father, and his Mother has been taken from him again. Hence, all the anger and resentment from the boy manifests itself.
In terms of television shows, I think they are much more exploitative, and are mostly used for entertainment purposes at the expense of the guests. The problems are rarely the focus in such programs; instead it is about how the personalities clash, and sometimes spectacularly so. Unlike a problem page, you wouldn’t watch a typical “media therapy” TV show that happened to feature an issue a little bit like something you were currently going through and come away with some ideas for a workable solution. You would come away thinking that Danny was an idiot with zero self-awareness, Mandy was far too promiscuous given her age, and that Norman deserved it all for being such a drip. These kinds of TV show are very much geared to entertain and get eyes on the screen, which in turn provides advertisement revenue for the channel making the program.
How helpful do I think these outlets might be for those who use them? I think they would be useful for some of the participants, for example drug addicts or alcoholics that are helped by specialist rehabilitation teams on programs like The Jeremy Kyle Show. This is specialist help that would usually be out of their reach, and for them and their families it could change the course of their lives. However, I do not like the voyeuristic “entertainment” that has to precede it before the addict can get help. Being on television in front of your friends, family, colleagues and neighbours cannot be easy, and I feel it may favour the ones who are extroverted and lack any kind of shame who are quite happy to go on television and entertain others with their problems, possibly at the expense of the ones that need it most, or the ones that would most likely succeed in treatment.
As noted above, the problem page in The Sun had a lot of phone numbers for various helplines and websites for fact sheets about love and sex and money and all the usual things that cause us problems, so that could be a good first step for someone who is having a problem but doesn’t necessarily want or need to come to counselling yet.
I would recommend magazine or newspaper columns to people that may not have anyone else to talk to who live in remote places and need advice and support, although therapy via webcam over Skype is gaining traction nowadays. I would love to be able to offer therapy to as wide an audience as possible one day, and the internet is perfect for this. I have in the past read blogs and websites which offer strategies on overcoming mental health problems, and it has inspired me to one day create such a website myself. I have a plan for a website that outlines general guidelines and tips on overcoming certain common problems which are close to my heart, such as the mid-life crisis, mental health and depression, overcoming social anxiety and how to stop being a people pleaser. The idea behind the blog would be that it would empower the reader with useful knowledge, strengthen their psychological immune system, and make them feel less alone struggling with their mental health. It would also help in raising awareness of the kind of help that is available, including of course, my own counselling service.
I would not recommend “counselling” by going on an exploitative television show to anyone.
Likewise, I would not personally go on a TV show and air my problems, but I have in the past posted on an internet forum to gather advice and opinions from a wide range of my target demographic. I would usually go to my wife if I had a problem, but this particular time the problem concerned her and her attitude, so I wrote up a short summary of the issue and posted it on a popular forum for women. I got a wide range of responses, some I did not like the ramifications of and some which were more palatable, but for the most part the advice was so scattershot, and my problem so specific, I couldn’t really discern any motivation for her actions. In the end, I spoke to my wife about it as she was the only person who really knew what was going on with her, and trying to work it out for myself or asking other people’s opinions didn’t really unveil the contents of her head.
Who makes use of these forms of help? It does seem to be a certain demographic that takes advantage of the television shows. From what I have seen on television, they tend to be families with low incomes, from broken homes and with questionable morals. I’m not sure if they are the same people who make use of counselling. From talking to people about therapy it tends to be people who have long standing mental problems, skewed core beliefs or problematic upbringings who make use of it, but that is only a very small sample size. In terms of internet forums like the one I visited, it tends to be people that don’t have close friends or trusted relatives to talk to that don’t necessarily see their problem as warranting proper “therapy”. That is definitely how I viewed my problem at the time. People that write letters to agony aunts because they live in remote areas that don’t have a lot of therapists locally would probably go and see a professional given the choice.
There are definitely helpful and unhelpful aspects of “media therapy”. It can be helpful to raise awareness of problems, and if you see someone on the TV suffering from something you are suffering from then you may feel a little less alone. With online forums and the various social media platforms you can “find your tribe” and connect with many like-minded people, join a support network of people who have similar issues, but airing your dirty laundry in public can sometimes cause problems as you do have to be very careful with who can read what you write and who can see pictures you post online.
I find the “entertainment” aspects of some of the TV shows quite unhelpful.
What are the models of therapy that are being promoted? Agony aunts and problem pages can be boiled down to essentially someone giving advice. After the initial letter has been sent in and the reply been published, there is no more two-way communication, so can it really be called counselling? I think it could only be termed “media therapy” in the loosest possible way. As I see it, The Jeremy Kyle Show seems to practise some kind of socio-dynamic communication therapy, with an emphasis on explosive trigger points, such as DNA and pregnancy tests. It tends to focus on group dynamics, firstly from the point of view from the person that is initially perceived to be the most wronged. New members of the group are introduced until we have a more rounded view of the problems and conflicts, and they are all encouraged to communicate with each other, to varying degrees of success.
Internet forums where someone posts a problem and then lots of other people analyse it and suggest courses of action is a kind of behaviourist crowd-sourced social imperative in which emotions and feelings are swept aside in favour of giving advice relative to the situation; A person can then pick and choose the best advice and happily discard that which does not resonate. It is useful to a degree but I have found that the advice given on the internet does tend to be very objective, probably because they are leaving semi-anonymous messages for faceless, voiceless entities on a screen rather than being in the same room and having a two-way conversation with a living, breathing, crying person.
Can “media therapy” offer any advantage over face-to-face therapy? I don’t think it can. I will include therapy and counselling over the internet via Skype with face-to-face therapy because I have had a few sessions of it before and it went ok. I definitely feel it is more useful than posting anonymous problems on the internet or going on TV to get punched in the face by your neighbour. Face-to-face therapy, with two people in the same room having a two-way conversation, with the counsellor able to gauge a client’s responses via the tone of their voice or their body language will always be head and shoulders above sending a letter to a newspaper. I can also see the danger in posting things online, as I mentioned earlier. It is vitally important to know who can see what you put on the internet, as well as protecting your identity online.
I could not present a TV show like The Jeremy Kyle Show or Oprah, I don’t like the idea of putting myself as the celebrity in the middle of it all, “front and centre” as it were. I don’t like the idea of having the focus on the person in the middle rather than the people with the problems. And even when the focus is on the people with the problems, I often feel that they are there to entertain the crowd rather than have their problems solved. I don’t feel I am great at giving advice, so an editor of a problem page would not be good for me either. One of the reasons for me deciding to pursue counselling was that people used to come to me often with their problems, but I always felt unsure as to what advice to give them. After some training in counselling skills I can see that it is not appropriate for a counsellor to offer advice, which suits me just fine. A lot of the time people just want to be heard and understood. That is enough.
There are a couple of formats used by some podcasts and on-demand TV shows that I feel I could be a part of. One is a podcast produced by Audible.com, and is a series of one-off therapy sessions that couples had with therapist Esther Perel, called “Where Should We Begin”. These couples would typically be having some sort of problem, and Esther would work her magic and by the end of the episode the couple would at least see things from the other person’s point of view.
The second format was a show produced by Amazon called “Empowered Wives”, and it featured a series of married women talking with relationship therapist Laura Doyle about their relationships and how they feel they are going wrong. Laura would then work through their issues with them and come to some kind of conclusion by the end of the episode.
It is the style of these therapeutic sessions and the participant’s honesty and openness rather than the content that interests me. I think it would be great to one day to have a man candidly talking to me about his mid-life crisis and not feel any shame about it. And it would be more amazing to be open enough as a society for it to be available online for any other man going through those problems to listen to. That is where we could be headed next, and I would love to be on the frontier of this exciting development.
I am not sure how professional counselling associations should respond to the growth of “media therapy”. I guess one way would be to embrace it, make use of the technology available and develop new ways of helping people. Another would be to approve of the avenues they did think were useful. One option not to pick is to decry it and publicly denounce “entertaining” TV shows; I don’t think that would help anyone in the long run.