Is Therapy Making Us More Depressed?

Maybe it was a global pandemic or merely the influence of an entire generation comfortable with venting each and every emotion online, but there’s been a huge cultural shift around the idea of therapy and counseling just within the last few decades.

By Gwen Farrell4 min read
Olha Nosova/Shutterstock

It feels as though we didn’t hear anything about it, and then, all of a sudden, everyone we knew from our mom to our therapist’s therapist is going to counseling and publicly praising the benefits.

There is something positive to be said for making counseling not only more accessible, but removing the societal shame, guilt, humiliation, and even secrecy around engaging in it. Mental health treatment has helped millions of people grapple with difficult upbringings, tenuous personal relationships, deep-seated trauma, and so much more. 

But if we take a look at the collective state of mental health, it doesn’t look like one that’s reaping the benefits of mental health treatment. If anything, it’s worse off than ever before. Still, we’re led to believe that as people who are more in touch with their emotions and feelings, we’re happier and more secure in ourselves. There’s a strange gap between the two: More people than ever before are reporting sky-high increases in anxiety and depression, yet those same people are simultaneously praising the benefits of counseling. This quandary is almost reminiscent of the age-old question of which came first, the chicken or the egg? In this instance, we have to ask, is therapy making us more depressed?

Breaking the Stigma, but at What Cost?

We live in a privileged time. We can have groceries, medication, doctor’s appointments, dog walkers, and yes, even mental health treatment with a few swipes and an app download. Aside from the technology, the widespread accessibility of what were once unattainable things like therapy and counseling would shock our ancestors. This was the same society that had notoriously poor treatment of the mentally ill and skewed ideas and beliefs around the reality of human behavior and psychology.

Our society used to maintain a stigma around mental illness. We had asylums, mental institutions and sanatoriums, which housed patients struggling with everything from severe, undiagnosed conditions to women who were sexually repressed or hormonally imbalanced. In many ways, the concept of closing the mentally ill off from the rest of society is a Victorian one, where a set of strict rules and regulations separates polite society from supposedly violent (and misunderstood) individuals who desperately needed relief.

Anthropologist Roy Richard Grinker, who specializes in researching mental illness, explains that stigmas are natural where individuals who are feared and misunderstood are concerned. He also points out that the concept of mental health treatment is a relatively Western one, as mental health diagnoses vary from culture to culture. What one society views as a condition, like schizophrenia, another might view as evidence of the presence of evil spirits or demonic possession.

In the 19th and 20th centuries, psychological treatment was strictly reserved for individuals on the outer fringes of society.

In the 19th and 20th centuries, psychological treatment was strictly reserved for individuals on the outer fringes of society, i.e., the disabled and mentally ill. Nowadays, you don’t need a diagnosis or extensive history of trauma to take advantage of mental health treatment. We’ve successfully dissolved the stigma around attaining things that support our health and well-being, like medication and counseling. But are all of us better off because of it?

Hard Evidence Tells the Truth

In the wake of the Affordable Care Act, studies show that more people than ever before are going to counseling, and not only that, but they're receiving “predominantly pharmaceutical treatments.” Use of antidepressants and similar prescription medication for mental health issues has increased, especially in women. And, mental health professionals and others in the field report that they’re being stretched thin, as the demand for treatment continues to grow. 

Nearly 20% of adults in 2019 reported issues with their mental health, and we can only surmise that after 2020, that number soared as emotional and physical isolation increased, while physical activity, job security, social unity, and confidence in governing authorities and the media decreased. More people than ever found themselves struggling with substance abuse and serious issues like suicidal ideation as a result of government-imposed lockdown policies and quarantine regulations. One in five adults has reported significant mental decline and “negative impact on their mental health” due to the pandemic alone.

With the constraints of the pandemic, the unavailability of in-person therapy has accelerated the rise in popularity of telehealth and unconventional counseling options, such as apps like BetterHelp and Talkspace. These apps bill themselves as being more affordable and more accessible options compared to traditional therapy; they boast that individuals desperately seeking mental health assistance can quickly get matched to licensed counselors in their immediate area who they can text and have virtual meetings with, at a cost significantly less than conventional counseling.

BetterHelp doesn’t authenticate a potential therapist’s credentials or the quality of services they provide.

It should be noted, though, that these companies partner with influencers and social media personalities to promote their apps, offering them paid sponsorships to advertise their services to massive followings. In a career where integrity and professional ethics are of the utmost importance, this practice seems less than ideal. But that’s just the tip of the iceberg.

Is "Therapy" Today Really Helping?

Telehealth and online therapy options may have revolutionized the field, but many patients are reporting that their mental health took a turn for the worse. Some individuals have taken to TikTok to report the myriad of issues and problematic experiences they’ve had with online therapy, including therapists who use the bathroom in the middle of sessions, unresponsive and rude behavior, and counselors who prefer to talk about themselves rather than the patient in front of them.

A lack of checks and balances seems almost inevitable with the gross commercialization of such a delicate topic like mental health, but even the therapists working within the companies report mistreatment and inadequate pay, among other things. One site even writes in its terms of service section that it does not authenticate a potential therapist’s credentials or the quality of services they provide!

Such is the result of trying (and failing) to meet the desperate need for mental health treatment, a need that social media sites and armchair psychologists are only too happy to fill. The influence and reach of social media have not only convinced individuals that someone with no previous mental health issues should seek mental health treatment, but that single women should even make it part of their list of non-negotiables to have a boyfriend who attends therapy

Pair this with the inevitable cyclical nature of wallowing in a victim mentality (and the societal pressure to punish those who go against such narratives), and the result is the continuing mental decline of individuals who are searching for peace and fulfillment and only receiving a shallow replica of it. It’s trendy to be in therapy or talk about how many SSRIs you’ve been prescribed, but it's also looked down upon to suggest that maybe the solution isn’t Big Pharma or unqualified advocates masquerading as professionals. Such is the state of the mental health profession as it stands today.

Closing Thoughts

It’s a natural human instinct to seek answers to our questions and solutions to deep-seated, intrinsic problems. But when we find those supposed resources on social media or from pseudo professionals, we inevitably have people who are more unhappy than ever. If we’re in therapy and remain depressed or anxious, we’ve become yet another conscript in a culture which values self-aggrandizement, manufactured trauma, and social media talking points over authentic mental health assistance.

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