Sunday, September 12, 2010

When Is Therapy Done?

(This article printed in the Fall, 2010, Cappstone, the newsletter of the Chicago Assn. for Psychoanalytic Psychology)

Susan C asks: “When is therapy done?”

One of the most important contributions of psychoanalytic psychology is the perspective that each person, and each client-therapist dyad, is unique. Susan has asked a general question, rather like one might ask a medical question: “When is antibiotic treatment done?,” or an educational question, “When is a course of study done?,” or even a plumbing question, “When will the furnace be installed?” If we are talking about people in therapy, we have to rephrase the question, to something like, “When is who’s therapy done, with whom?”

Generally speaking, people come into therapy with a acute problems which tend to improve after awhile, often within several months. Along with that improvement comes the perception that the client is vulnerable to react to certain stressors in certain ways; such vulnerability and reactions having contributed to the acute problem in the first place. Some people feel, once the acute problem has been relieved, that therapy has done its work, and that’s one way of looking at it. Others feel that it’s important to continue to work on the underlying vulnerabilities so that the problem is less likely to repeat itself. Here are a couple of cases that illustrate the situation of therapy that could be approaching completion, or could go on substantially longer.

An elementary school child who has developed some OCD type symptoms in response to various stresses is making good progress, and has become substantially freer of compulsive behaviors that used to complicate eating and bathing. He doesn’t especially like the idea of being in therapy, and he hopes that by checking off the list of ways in which he’s being compulsive, he’ll be able to stop. That’s alright by me; if the desire to be done with therapy provides the motivation to resolve his compulsive behaviors, then I can work with that. His mother, however, is concerned about his vulnerability to the stresses that he’ll encounter as he enters a new grade in school, and becomes a year older among his peers. She thinks he ought to use therapy to become socially more adept and personally more resilient. That makes sense to me, too, since his history demonstrates that he is vulnerable to developing OCD symptoms under stress. So he has a rationale for stopping soon, his mother has a rationale for continuing, and I can support both rationales.

Another client is a bright high school senior with a learning disability and family stress issues, both affecting his self-concept and self-esteem, which came to a head in a suicidal episode that brought him into therapy. In mainly individual therapy, with some family sessions, he’s worked on a number of difficult issues. He is doing much better, is no longer at substantial risk for suicidal behavior, and is on track to begin college this fall. However, his reactions to his learning issues and family stresses are still problematic, if no longer life-threatening, and significant gaps in his understand about himself and others make him vulnerable to getting into very stressful situations that he may have difficulty finding his way out of. These vulnerabilities put him at risk if some combination of stressors--such as he’s likely to encounter when he starts college--occur simultaneously and interact to become more intense. Again, there’s a rationale for stopping, and also for continuing.

When I’ve been on the receiving side of therapeutic conversation, it’s been pretty clear whether it’s helpful or not. If my therapist or consultant is trustworthy, listens carefully, and helps me to understand how I’ve been perceiving and reacting to various situations and how I could do better, that’s adding value to my life. When therapy or consultation is no longer making much difference in my quality of life, I can use my time and money in other ways.

Of course, therapy or consultation is an economic relationship, partly. Like any other service, it is selected and paid for because it is deemed to be of sufficient value, and ended when it’s value priority decreases relative to other priorities. This holds true whether the payor is the client, an insurance company, a not-for-profit agency, or the government.

Another client is an adult with a pervasive developmental disorder who came into therapy with a serious depression. On a scale of 1 to 10, where 1 is totally depressed and 10 totally happy, he rated himself a 2 or a 3. Several months later, he rates himself a 5 or 6. He’s dealt with some issues and his social life has improved. He still has issues, and could usefully work on them, but he’s also lost his job. His mother is supporting his therapy but anticipates a time when she may have to support his basic living expenses. Is therapy done or should it continue?

One thing that therapy should not do is cultivate dependency. The therapeutic dyad should be engaged around issues of importance in the client’s life, in ways that sustain and enrich her life, in a way that a careful observer, who can take the time to learn the details of the client’s life and needs, and to see how her therapy is working, ought to be able to recognize. There should always be that imaginary “third person” in the therapy room, someone who only has the client’s best interests at heart and in mind, who will know whether this particular therapeutic experience is adding value to the client. Maybe we can call her the Therapy Angel.

So, the response to Susan C’s question is, “What would the Therapy Angel say?” Clear-eyed and loving-hearted, she’d (or he’d, EOE) know when therapy’s done. And would know that “done” means different things for different people. For one person, “done” means the presenting acute symptoms have abated. For another, “done” means, beyond resolving acute symptoms, that the client has become a wiser and more resilient person. For another, “done” means that the client has benefitted more or less as much as possible from this particular therapeutic dyad. For another, “done” means that therapy, as an economic priority, has decreased compared with other economic priorities.

One last word about economics, though. I’ve found that therapy can often help people economically, either by helping them to maintain employment or earning power that otherwise might be compromised by psychological stress and dysfunction, or by helping them to recognize and take advantage of new opportunities in life--including business or professional life--and partnering. As one of my teachers used to say, “When therapy is working, it is very good value!”

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