What psychotherapy is and what it is not
The word “psychotherapy” stems from two Greek words: psyche (soul) and therapein (to treat). Even though the first mentions on the treatment of mental diseases could be found as early as in prehistoric times in the form of shamanic practices, the contemporary, scientific and knowledge-based psychotherapy has a relatively short history.
It is agreed that its emergence happened upon the publication of Sigmund Freud and Josef Breuer’s book entitled “Studies on Hysteria” (1895), which started the first school in psychotherapy, i.e. psychoanalysis. Ever since, a huge number of schools and currents of psychotherapy have been created (there is currently ca. 500 of them!), which makes it significantly difficult to define this peculiar profession. Speaking more broadly, however, psychotherapy means each and every method of treating mental or psychosomatic disorders using intentionally specialised psychological measures (Grzesiuk, 2005). In particular, psychotherapy is an experience that may lead to a better understanding of oneself and that, in turn, may improve the psychosocial functioning and the quality of life of psychotherapy clients (Francesetti et al., 2016; Zinker, 1991).
Psychotherapy is sometimes confused with many forms of professional psychological activities. Please note that psychological counselling, psychological diagnosis, crisis intervention, psychological skill training, coaching, mentoring etc. are not psychotherapy. What is more, psychotherapy has its non-professional side as a lot of people present themselves as “psychotherapists” even though they do not have any qualifications to do so. Psychotherapy does not involve giving “good advice on how to live” or ready-made solutions to different problems – it involves as little (or as much) as accompanying a client in the process of better understanding of what they are and what they really need or not need. Remember that the clients of psychotherapy are the best experts in themselves. After all, for psychotherapy to be effective, it requires mutual involvement of both the client and the psychotherapist. This is not, therefore, a situation where one undergoes “treatment,” as in the case of a doctor’s office, but a form of actively participating in the process of one’s change and motivating for it.
Psychotherapy can be practiced only by properly trained individuals, i.e. graduates of specialised postgraduate trainings on the psychotherapy modalities recognised professional trade organisations. Mere studies in psychology or psychiatry do not allow their graduates to pursue psychotherapy. For over 30 years, European standards for the pursuit of the profession of the psychotherapist have been formulated by the so-called Strasbourg Declaration (1990), on the basis of which the European Association for Psychotherapy (EAP) was established in 1991. It focuses all largest psychotherapeutic organisations and associations. The Strasbourg Declaration preaches that the profession of psychotherapist is a free and autonomous profession. However, in popular belief a lot of people confuse it with other professions, such as psychologists and psychiatrists. It is, therefore, worth introducing the necessary differentiation:
Psychologist – a person who graduated from long-cycle studies in psychology and took a year-long postgraduate professional work placement in the speciality they select (e.g. clinical psychology, forensic psychology, business psychology etc.).
Psychiatrist – a medical doctor representing one of medical specialisations – psychiatry. They deal with treating people suffering from mental diseases. They work in psychiatric hospitals and clinics or run their private practices. Psychiatrists are the only healthcare professionals who can prescribe psychotropic drugs.
Psychotherapist – an individual with higher education who graduated from a psychotherapy school (or is during the training) in the selected psychotherapeutic modality (e.g. psychoanalytical-psychodynamic, cognitive-behavioural, humanistic-existential, systemic or integrative). The psychotherapist has to be under constant supervision, that is use consultations with another psychotherapist with a supervisor title to be able to draw from their knowledge and experience, thus improving their own psychotherapeutic skills. Some psychotherapeutic modalities require that psychotherapists go through their own psychotherapy, taking several years, as a step necessary for the to get prepared to pursue their profession.
Who and why starts psychotherapy?
There is no specific answer to the above question – it is not easy to provide a finite list of the reasons for which people seek the professional assistance of the psychotherapist. Most frequently, it happens when their everyday well-being and functioning is disturbing them and/or their relatives more and more. You can start psychotherapy out of your own initiative after unsuccessful attempts of dealing with psychological problems or it can be advised by family members, friends, doctors or colleagues. In some cases, psychotherapy may help in psychological problems linked with long-term medical problems which dramatically affect the quality of life of the given individual (e.g. a terminal disease). Abrupt changes in one’s life – such as a death of a close one, a divorce or dismissal from the jog – may lead to or deepen psychological problems, which requires care of a psychotherapist. Some undergo psychotherapy because they were legally forced to do so by a court in connection with criminal proceedings. There is also quite a large group of people who consciously choose psychotherapy as a means of internal development and deeper self-discovery.
Is using psychotherapy services a reason to be ashamed?
Even though using psychotherapeutic services in Western Europe or the United States is as normal as an appointment with a dentist or a beautician, in Poland there are still a lot of irrational stereotypes in this sphere that linger (although the situation is changing).
Therefore, it is worth overcoming the still persistent prejudices towards psychotherapy in our country. This is by no means a sign of weakness, a proof of “being crazy” or a symptom of laziness and inability to deal with one’s own problems. Quite the contrary, this is a courageous decision of people who want to consciously lead their own life and take ownership for it.
Finally, it is worth pointing out that in many countries (including Poland), there are still no uniform legal frameworks for the profession of the psychotherapist. This often leads to situations where people without qualifications to pursue that profession (e.g. psychics, practitioners of alternative medicine or – especially today – celebrities or Internet influencers) give people their “self-taught” advice on mental health or outright dub themselves psychotherapists. Therefore, one needs to be on guard against different types of frauds using human pain and ignorance to their own advantage. The best method of checking whether we are dealing with an actual professional is to ask them to show us their certificate (or a confirmation of attendance if they are still in training) issued by a recognised psychotherapist training centre in Poland or abroad. It is also important to see whether a psychotherapist is under constant supervision, whether they use services of another qualified psychotherapist who supports them in work with their clients. The client can also ask questions on the education, competences or professional experience of the psychotherapist – a professional has nothing to hide.
Francesetti G., Gecele M., Roubal J. (2016). Psychoterapia Gestalt w praktyce klinicznej. Od psychopatologii do estetyki kontaktu [Gestalt psychotherapy in clinical practice. From psychopathology to aesthetics of contact] Publisher: Harmonia Universalis.
Freud Z., Breuer J. (1895). Studia nad histerią [Studies on Hysteria]. Warsaw: Publisher: KR.
Grzesiuk L. (2005). Psychoterapia. Teoria [Psychotherapy. Theory]. Warsaw: Eneteia.
Zinker, J. (1991). Proces twórczy w terapii Gestalt [Creative process in the Gestalt therapy]. Publisher: Jacek Santorski & Co Agencja Wydawnicza.