“Techniques are fine. The only problem is that they leave out the client, the therapist, and the relationship.”
Evidence converging from numerous fields is showing that humans have evolved to give and receive emotional healing through social networks. Psychotherapy, then, can be seen from this perspective as a manifestation of our capacity – endowed by evolution – to heal each other. As my new book, The Human Elements of Psychotherapy: A Nonmedical Model of Emotional Healing,(1) explores the mounting evidence that points toward a revolution taking place in contemporary psychotherapy, I believe it will be of interest to MIA’s “community for those interested in rethinking psychiatric care.”(2)
Since the time of Freud, the field of psychotherapy has assumed that modalities and techniques were the instruments of change in psychotherapy. But the evidence is mounting that modalities and techniques have relatively little to do with effectiveness; evidence shows that it is the human elements of psychotherapy that are the most potent agents of healing.(3)
I hope that the book will show clinicians, clinical researchers, psychotherapy students, and the general public that therapists are not “junior physicians” wielding medical-like techniques and tools but, rather, caring healers who are in fact especially skilled in employing the best tools we have ever had: connecting and interacting with clients in ways that help heal their emotional difficulties. With so many millennia of experience in giving and receiving emotionally healing through social means, why are humans so quick to subordinate this capacity to the latest “scientific technique”?
The book highlights “moral treatment,” which arose in Europe in the early 1800s in opposition to the view in the 1700s that those with severe psychological problems were “brutes” that had to be controlled. Moral treatment provided patients with a safe environment, employing non-professionals to support and interact with them, and provided the opportunity to participate in activities designed to support physical, emotional, and spiritual well-being.
Moral treatment was a humane – and effective(4) – alternative to the brutal “medical” treatments of the day. However, many physicians were concerned about its popularity, as well as its effectiveness. To the extent that moral treatment showed that non-professionals were more effective than physicians in curing insanity and that kindness, respect, and support were more effective than medical treatments, its presence threatened to undermine the rationale upon which physicians’ “expertise,” and hence their influence, rested. In time, physicians undermined moral treatment and put medical treatments back at the center.
Nevertheless, moral treatment’s outcomes in various centers and hospitals in Europe and America showed that psychosocial support, not medical techniques, was the most potent agent of healing.
One has to wonder what would happen if the billions of dollars that we pour into psychiatric hospitals and psychiatric drugs were redirected to build home-like centers where those with severe psychological problems could interact on a daily basis with kind, caring staff. Increasing evidence suggests that human connection and social interaction are potent healing agents for those with severe emotional problems.
Is it possible that the “mental health system” in the U.S. has it all wrong and that emotional healing occurs primarily through social means? That is, through human connection and social interaction with individuals who know how to extend empathy, support, and care in ways that heal? How much more efficient, effective, safe and health-giving will our system be if we can identify these “common factors” of our social well-being, and build a system that truly rests on this knowledge? The Human Elements of Psychotherapy: A Nonmedical Model of Emotional Healing seeks to help us explore the potential of this reality.
- Elkins, D. N. (2016). The human elements of psychotherapy: A nonmedical model of emotional healing. APA Press.
- Whitaker, R. (2002). Madinamerica.com, “About Us.”Cambridge, MA: Perseus.
- Sprenkle, D. H., Davis, S. D., & Lebow, J. L. (2009). Common factors in couple and family therapy: The overlooked foundation for effective practice. Guilford Press.
- Whitaker, R. (2010). Mad in America: Bad science, bad medicine, and the enduring mistreatment of the mentally ill. Basic Books.
Mad in America hosts blogs by a diverse group of writers. These posts are designed to serve as a public forum for a discussion—broadly speaking—of psychiatry and its treatments. The opinions expressed are the writers’ own.