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Reflecting on the article about Prince Harry: Debunking the myth of "psychotherapy cult"

If you fell off a bike, would you feel ashamed that you were hurting? And if this happened to your friend, would you judge them for seeking help to treat their wounds?

Recently, I read a Tweet which referred to a “psychotherapy cult” when commenting on Prince Harry talking openly about his mental health struggles. When I read it, I knew I had to say something about it.

On January 10th, The Independent published an article that voiced the concerns of “a source close to” the Royal family over Harry’s behaviour, claiming he was “kidnapped by a cult of psychotherapy”.

As much as it is heart-breaking to see any family struggle, and, as always in such cases, everyone has their story to tell, unfortunately, the publicity of the Royal family means that nothing goes unscrutinised. And sadly, I see “mental health stigma” written all over the recent comment referring to the psychotherapy cult, and I am not the only one.

I am a Research Psychologist, and in this blog, I would like to talk about the stigma that surrounds psychological therapy.

First of all, the word “cult” cannot be more distant from what psychotherapy is. The definition of a cult, as per the Cambridge dictionary, is “a religious group, often living together, whose beliefs are considered extreme or strange by many people”.

Contrast this with the definition of psychotherapy, for example, according to the American Psychiatric Association: “Psychotherapy is a way to help people with a broad variety of mental illnesses and emotional difficulties through talking to a professionally trained and certified therapist. Psychotherapy can help eliminate or control troubling symptoms so a person can function better and can increase well-being and healing.”

Within the scientific and clinical community, the term “psychotherapy cult” was used in the 80s with reference to, in the authors’ words, some “bizarre groups of mental health professionals” operating in the 1960s.

How and why this term has been resurrected today is a mystery. And a concern.

Psychotherapy is an evidence-based practice, which means that rigorous studies have shown that it works. These studies are similar to those used to test whether a medication works, and are conducted by established scientists and published in scientific journals.

There are different types of therapy suitable for different conditions. In England, the NHS offers a wide range of therapies. In 2008, the NHS launched Improving Access to Psychological Therapies (IAPT) programme aiming to make mental health support more accessible to people. However, the NHS is not the only source of psychological therapies available. These can be sought from other sources so long as the psychotherapists have professional accreditations.

Currently, in order to become a certified psychotherapist, you need to undergo professional and stringent training which includes supervised practice with senior therapists, allowing you to receive accreditation from a professional body such as the British Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy (BACP), or the United Kingdom Council for Psychotherapy (UKCP) in the UK, for example. Even when you practice, you continue receiving supervision. You can read more about it in my previous blog on psychological therapy for depression.

There are heaps of studies showing that psychotherapy is effective for various conditions. Several meta-analyses, which is a method of looking at the results from many studies grouped together, showed that psychotherapy is effective in treating depression, personality disorders, or eating disorders, to name a few.

Out of almost 1.5 million people who were referred for psychotherapy through IAPT in 2021, 75% of those who have completed the course of psychotherapy showed considerable improvement in their well-being, and half made full recovery.

Now, I would like to go back to what I felt this piece of news conveyed, and that is perpetuating mental health stigma.

Mental health stigma has been covered extensively by our Inspire the Mind writers in the past. We talked about shame and misconceptions about mental health from a medical student’s perspective.

We heard from Melisa Kose about how movies can perpetuate stereotypes of “mad scientists”, people with mental health difficulties being villains, and psychiatric institutions being scary and not to be trusted. Yet, with a growing awareness that mental health stigmatisation can lead to social exclusion and discrimination, as a society, we are taking steps to evolve and begin to speak up about mental health difficulties. It begins to feel like mental health, the underdog of health is catching up with its counterpart, physical health, and that maybe one day, they can co-exist, with equal rights.

It feels hopeful.

But the “battle” isn’t over as we take many steps backward by villainising psychotherapy as done in the recent article by The Independent. And I can’t help but wonder, what effect will it have on people who were already ashamed of seeking help for their mental health struggles?

Do we want to live in a society in which we marginalise people who need help? I certainly don’t.

Luckily, celebrities are speaking publicly about their experience with mental health problems and psychotherapy. Here are two quotes, and more are available at this link:

“I’ve been going to therapy for about five years and it has really helped my mental health incredibly. And it’s a really wonderful thing to be able to talk to someone who doesn’t judge you, because I don’t think a lot of people have that. I encourage it.” — Katy Perry

“I kept meeting service members and military spouses who were hesitant to ask for help because they thought they should be able to handle it themselves or that seeking help meant they were weak or broken,” … “But of course that couldn’t be further from the truth … Our service members, veterans and their families are some of the most courageous, resilient folks I have ever met, and asking for help is always a sign of strength.” — Michelle Obama

According to the Mental Health Foundation report, in 2014, 37% of those experiencing mental health problems sought and received professional help. This was almost twice as much in comparison to the figures from 2000.

These are promising results, although they also mean that the vast majority of people living in England do not seek help or do not have access to it, still. For that reason, we need to work together — scientists, psychotherapists, other mental health professionals, people with lived experience, politicians, media, celebrities, and everyone else for that matter, to raise awareness about mental health. We need to normalise it, to break the stigma surrounding it, and to make it more accessible for everyone to receive treatment .

So, I am glad that people like Prince Harry are speaking up and fighting for this cause. I hope that going forward we will see more and more accepting attitudes toward mental health and seeking therapy. I also hope that collaboration within society will prevail over polarisation and bias.

I would like to conclude with a quote from Kerry Washington, an American actress, and director, which echoes the beginning of this piece:

“It’s really important to take the stigma away from mental health. My brain and my heart are really important to me. I don’t know why I wouldn’t seek help to have those things be as healthy as my teeth. I go to the dentist. So why wouldn’t I go to a shrink?” — Kerry Washington



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