There have recently been articles in the Orthodox Jewish media which have made confusing, and often erroneous, statements regarding the nature of psychotherapy and its effectiveness. We have even read comparisons of psychotherapists with charlatans such as palm readers and fortune tellers. Thus, we have encountered articles which tell of therapists who ruined people’s careers, advised them to dissolve their marriages, mocked their religious practices, and encouraged them to embark upon questionable business ventures. I do not necessarily doubt the veracity of these reports, but many of them suggest practices that are not consistent with the proper practice of psychotherapy.
As one who received postgraduate training in psychotherapy and who practiced it for many years, I would like to correct some of the misconceptions which are being foisted upon the public.
Rather than borrow a definition of “psychotherapy,” I will define it as I personally understand it. Psychotherapy is a process in which an individual, couple, family, or group agree to meet with a trained professional for the purpose of discussing the problems which beset them, often described as “the emotional problems of living.” The objective is for the parties to explore these problems and come to understand the factors that are causing them. The psychotherapist assists in this process, using techniques in which he or she is trained, and providing an atmosphere which is non-judgmental, accepting, warm, honest, trusting, and confidential. The psychotherapist encourages the participants, usually called clients or patients, to examine their own behaviors, and helps them determine what choices exist which might alleviate the problems they face.
The psychotherapist does not tell them what they should do, does not give them advice in the usual sense, and does not directly influence their decisions as to the choices they might adopt. He or she facilitates a process in which the participants become aware of the range of choices open to them, and helps clarify the nature of these choices and the range of possible consequences. Decisions and choices are always the prerogative of the client or patient, and the cultural preferences, religious traditions, and personal autonomy of the client are always respected.
Many people confuse the role of the psychotherapist with that of advisers in other fields, such as business affairs, where it is expected and legitimate that the adviser will say things like, “I think this is a good investment,” or religious conduct, where the rabbinical adviser pronounces which practices are prohibited or permissible. Again, the psychotherapist is not to be compared to such advisers: he or she does not make pronouncements about what is right or wrong.
Thus, it is always the client who makes the decision of what course of action to adopt, and never the therapist. Clients who choose psychotherapy must be aware that the responsibility for decisions is theirs and theirs alone. They must realize that they have every right to end the psychotherapeutic relationship if they believe that it is not working or if they have any other objections to the nature of the treatment. It is generally advisable that they inform the therapist of their doubts and concerns about the treatment, and discuss these doubts and concerns, before terminating the relationship.
It must furthermore be understood that there are numerous different approaches to the dazzling multiplicity and complexity of the problems human beings face. Often, therapists will spend the initial several sessions in determining the nature of the problems and in deciding upon a specific therapeutic approach. Sometimes they will feel that a referral to another therapist, more qualified in the necessary approach, is warranted. Not every therapist is qualified to treat every human problem. Like all professionals, therapists adopt specialties consistent with their own personalities, training and experience.
It is important, when choosing a therapist, to seek out expert, credentialed professionals who are appropriately licensed and thoroughly trained and experienced. There is no such thing as a “non-licensed therapist.” A non-licensed therapist is not a therapist, period!
It is important to choose the right therapist. Individuals seeking therapy for themselves or for a family member or friend must not only identify a licensed therapist, but must find one who is trained to diagnose and treat the specific problems being presented. Thankfully, there are organizations within our own community which can help those seeking psychotherapy to obtain appropriate referrals. These organizations include NEFESH, which is an organization of Orthodox Jewish mental health professionals, and with which I personally am affiliated as Rabbinic Liaison; and RELIEF, which is a referral agency equipped to identify highly skilled therapists for the entire range of emotional disorders, and which I personally highly recommend. There are of course other resources, both within and outside the Orthodox community, which can be helpful.
In this age of great stress and multiple challenges, psychotherapy is an excellent and extremely helpful resource for many, if not most, of the difficulties we face. Each individual must decide for himself or herself whether or not psychotherapy is a suitable alternative for him or her. But before choosing a therapist, it is important to make certain that the therapist is a trained and credentialed professional, and equally important to remember that the person him or herself is the one who is ultimately responsible for his or her choices and decisions.
Rabbi Tzvi Hersh Weinreb, Ph.D. is the Executive Vice President, Emeritus of the Orthodox Union.