Can Psychological treatments do more harm than good?

Nausea, dry mouth, constipation, increased appetite and loss of interest in sex. These are all well-known and easily detectable side effects of antidepressants, but what about other techniques used to treat depression? What are the side effects of psychological treatments?

Therapy is becoming an increasingly popular and effective method of treating depression, however recent studies have shown that there might be some less obvious and lasting negative effects compared to other treatments. Out of 14,587 people who took part in a survey asking about a range of psychological therapies, one in 20 said they had ‘’lasting bad effects’’ from treatment.

Examples of these effects found from another study include people complaining of becoming angrier, anxious or losing self-esteem. Furthermore, people were more likely to feel harmed if they did not know which psychological therapy they were being given, or if they were not white and heterosexual.

Is psychological therapy something to worry about? Does it needed to be avoided at all costs?

No, is the simple answer according to Scott O Lilienfeld. The professor of psychology at Emory University in the US, and author of ‘a review on the harms of psychological therapies’, has assured us all that psychological therapies are generally safe.

However there is no denying that there is evidence that shows that psychological therapies can cause harm in certain situations. Critical incident stress debriefing, often offered after violent events (such as witnessing terrorism), has been known to actually increase the risk of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

Recovered memory techniques have also shown a five-fold increase in admissions to mental health institutions, and a seven-fold rise in suicidal thoughts. A programme called Scared Straight that exposed at-risk adolescents to the realities of prison life, actually led to an increase in offending.

Lilienfield has also suggested that the real issue lies with harmful therapists and not the actual treatments. He stated that therapists who are confrontational, lack empathy and don’t disclose which treatment they are using should be avoided.

If you are currently receiving psychological treatment, it is advised that you can check the one you are being given works for your diagnosed condition. Most should work regardless of ethnic group or sexual orientation, but if you are no better after a month of therapy, then you should ask your therapist why this is. Some therapies, for example, for obsessive-compulsive disorders, should show improvement after a couple of sessions (even if that improvement is from feeling terrible to horrible).

Your therapist should always ask if your symptoms have got worse. You don’t have to feel worse in therapy before you get better.

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