Students are very likely to become overwhelmed at one point during their degrees. The reasons for this are infinite – love life, too much drugging and drinking, studies and exams, missing your parents, falling out with your friends…
Statistics tell us that 25% of people are likely to have a mental health problem during their lifetime. In an internet survey of the mental health of students at 4 UK universities, it was found that almost a third of students described extremely high levels of the psychological issues they were experiencing. Research has also shown that students’ anxiety levels were increased after moving away from home.
To support struggling students, an array of therapies is available. The therapies can be broadly split into classical (CBT and psychodynamic) and also more modern (opera and drama) types.
Which therapy should you choose and why? Do different people suit different therapies? Should we be getting therapy at all or should we try to figure our lives out on our own?
To answer these and other questions one might have about therapy, we should start with an understanding of what each therapy entails. Imagine yourself in each of the following situations:
CBT (Cognitive Behavioural Therapy)
Patient: ‘I feel sad all the time.’
Therapist: ’All the time? Really? Let’s change that maladaptive pattern of thinking. I am sure there has been at least one time recently when you laughed or had a good time. In order to feel better, you need to replace this maladaptive thinking with learning to think and feel more positively. We are going to work in the “here and now”.‘
A negative side of this therapy is the need to have an alliance between the patient and therapist. But why would you open up to a stranger? Also, what if there are clashes due to differences in personality or upbringing? This is very likely to happen in a university setting, where students come from all over the world to study, bringing with them different cultural traditions.
Also, this therapy isn’t going to work unless you are very motivated to get better. If you have severe depression and are suicidal, one often doesn’t want to get better. Similarly, in some cases of schizophrenia, one might not be aware of their illness. You can’t be motivated to get better if you don’t know you’re unwell in the first place.
Patient: ‘I feel sad all the time’
Freud: ‘Tell me your dreams.’
Patient: ‘I dreamed about a train going through a tunnel yesterday and the platform was bubbling with rats in little police hats. I woke up screaming and sweating’
Freud: ‘These dream symbols clearly indicate that you are sexually deprived and you’re scared of your parents and siblings. Maybe you should have more sex. And ask yourself, what happened deep in your childhood that causes you to be scared of your parents and siblings at this age’
Patient: ‘I disagree with this analysis.’
Freud: ’You are clearly in denial. Your unconscious motivations and emotions need to be brought out to the conscious level so that you can deal with them in a more adaptive way.’
The psychodynamic therapy is not only based on Freud, many other famous names are involved, who were not as obsessed with our unconscious sexual desires. The reason this therapy may not work for all is that not everyone enjoys digging deep into their unconscious. Additionally, even though Freud’s concepts of dream interpretation and psychosexual development have had a lot of influence on culture and psychology, we still can’t prove his abstract concepts exist.
Classical therapy has stood the test of time, but are not perfect for everyone. Sceptics of classical therapies should try something new: Drama or opera therapy.
Drama therapy is exciting, enjoyable and yet provides useful comprehension of oneself. Theatrical techniques are applied to solving issues, achieving release, changing maladaptive patterns and understand yourself better. People can learn communications skills and achieve higher self-esteem. It’s useful as it allows patients to practice behaviour and see how it would feel, before acting out the behaviour.
Let me, however, caution you against this therapy if you feel uncomfortable with your acting skills, or often compare themselves to others or feel under pressure already.
Opera therapy is a very recent development. In England, there is an organisation called Opera Helps, where opera singers make house calls to sing and lift one’s mood. The singers have noticed the positive effects of their singing. In terms of science, it has been shown that music helps to reduce stress and also that fluency of speech in stroke patients was improved after they practised singing and chanting to themselves. The idea behind music (opera) therapy is that a therapist uses patient’s experiences of listening to or playing music in order to improve facets such as social development, motor skills, emotions, behaviours and thinking skills.
This therapy is for those fed up of talking, as it doesn’t rely on consciously thinking but is based on inner experiences, which can become more accessible due to listening to music.
However, even though music therapy is becoming more popular, it is not used as widely as standard therapies, and its usefulness should be proven by research.
In cases of extreme distress do not despair – there is help for you coming in various shapes and forms. Do your research before committing to any therapy, as it is often the case that before getting better, one has to get worse and release and accept some inner ‘demons’.
As someone who studied psychology, I think non-standard therapies should be used as well as typical ones but I do not trust them fully, purely because standard therapies have been successful for many years, whereas there is no such evidence base of success for novel therapies. ‘Nobody knows what you want except you’ (Barry Manilow) and nobody knows what works best for you except you either, so why not give modern therapies a try?
Dr Elizabeth Kaplunov is a chartered psychologist who evaluates projects about health technology for disabled and vulnerable people.
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