Psychotherapy as a Medical Treatment

With Sigmund Freud’s enhancement of modern-day psychotherapy in the 1890s, a new method for managing psychopathology was born. A neurologist by education, Freud was initial and foremost a medical health care provider who, in 1895, wrote that with psychoanalysis he wished to create “a psychology that would be a normal science.”1 Through his profession, Freud maintained his perception that upcoming advances in neuroscience would validate his thoughts on the unconscious, and that later on modifications to psychoanalytic system could render it successful for far more critical psychological conditions like schizophrenia.

Nonetheless, in the earlier 50 many years, and in particular the previous 30, we have witnessed the principle of psychotherapy used to a host of endeavors unrelated to the treatment of psychopathology. These fields include things like marital, family, and romantic relationship treatment occupation and company counseling good psychology and typical self-advancement new age energy healing and, most recently, lifetime coaching. It is conceivable that the current variety of therapists in the United States doing the job in spots such as people detailed previously exceeds the quantity of therapists fascinated mostly in the treatment of psychiatric problems.

The American Psychological Association’s present-day definition of psychotherapy is as follows2:

“…any psychological assistance furnished by a trained skilled that principally works by using sorts of communication and conversation to assess, diagnose, and address dysfunctional [disordered] psychological reactions, strategies of imagining, and behavior designs.”

But, amongst some modern day psychoanalysts and existential therapists, there is a inclination to see psychotherapy as a approach wholly unrelated to the idea of mental sickness (ie, not as a variety of treatment for illness, but instead as an endeavor carried out for other good reasons), a posture that deviates appreciably from the psychiatric and psychoanalytic conceptualization of psychotherapy for the vast greater part of the 20th century.

Although this demedicalization of psychotherapy coincides chronologically with the expansion in lay analysis (ie, the apply of psychotherapy by nonphysicians), I contend that it is not exclusively due to this variable. Psychiatric social staff had been the to start with nonphysicians to exercise psychotherapy beginning in the early 20th century, engaging in this exercise well just before it was adopted by the fields of psychology and counseling, but psychotherapy remained chiefly focused on the treatment of the mentally unwell in the course of this time period.3 Rebranding psychotherapy as a nonmedical endeavor unrelated to psychopathology has arrive with quite a few destructive implications.

The Repercussions of Demedicalization for Patients

I contend that there are 3 primary consequences to demedicalizing psychotherapy:

1. Psychotherapy will become devalued relative to other types of psychiatric treatment, despite its tested effectiveness for a selection of psychological issues.

2. Access to psychotherapy as a treatment for psychological diseases gets to be more challenging, as less therapists choose to specialize in managing psychiatric clients and instead turn out to be focused on other sorts of treatment or counseling.

3. Training specifications for psychotherapists continue on to loosen, so that a lot of graduating therapists have experienced minimal to no exposure to clients throughout the psychiatric diagnostic spectrum.

When all 3 factors are vital, I would like to comment briefly on amount 3, which I see as specially worrisome. Teaching requirements for psychotherapists in this region have been slipping for a long time. For occasion, some clinicians finish graduate faculty with out ever acquiring assessed a affected person with schizophrenia or bipolar dysfunction. Internship web sites could be positioned in a wide variety of nonclinical configurations. With out suitable coaching in the evaluation and treatment of psychological diseases, nonmedical therapists are a lot less possible to decide on to do the job with these patients—and may perhaps set them at risk of harm if they do.

These components have led to a shortage of correctly trained psychotherapists nationwide. In my individual metropolitan region of more than 3 million people, there are only a handful of therapists in non-public settings who function with people with serious mental disorders, these types of as schizophrenia. Nevertheless, the on-line therapy directories are filled with listings of therapists who focus in relationship complications and daily life coaching. The unfortunate fact is that the patients who will need the most assistance are the kinds minimum probably to obtain it. The demedicalization of psychotherapy gets to be a barrier to entry of competent mental health treatment.

In stating that psychotherapy is mainly a kind of medical treatment, I am not suggesting that its practice as soon as yet again be confined to medical professionals. In a broad perception, a whole host of medical interventions are offered by nonphysicians, this sort of as nurses and doctor assistants, and I contend that psychotherapy is a person of individuals interventions. As pointed out higher than, psychiatric social employees practiced psychotherapy inside departments of psychiatry beginning in the 1910s. For the duration of this time, psychotherapy remained a medical treatment for psychiatric diseases.

Also, I do not contend that these nonmedical extensions of psychotherapy, these types of as helping businesspeople climb the corporate ladder, are not legit pursuits that provide a helpful purpose. It is basically to say that these other enterprises, as worthy (and worthwhile) as they may possibly be, distract us from psychotherapy’s principal purpose: the alleviation of the human suffering induced by mental disease. What we are still left with is a psychotherapy that operates for the abundant and healthy, not the unwell and disabled.

The Penalties of Demedicalization for the Industry of Psychotherapy

Not only is demedicalizing psychotherapy lousy for psychiatric clients, it is also negative for psychotherapy by itself. When psychotherapy is seen by the common public—and by some mental health professionals—as a little something other than treatment (eg, as mere dialogue to offer with working day-to-day daily life struggles), it turns into an intervention of secondary or tertiary significance in the psychiatric armamentarium. If psychotherapy is observed as not definitely dealing with psychological ailments (“Medications handle the illness, psychotherapy just assists people today cope”), then its use will step by step drop out of style in favor of other, commonly biological, solutions. Still we know that psychotherapy is the treatment of alternative for a vary of mental diseases, together with character issues, posttraumatic anxiety problem, mild depressive disorder, and many others.4

Even in scenarios wherever psychotherapy is not indicated as monotherapy, these as in the treatment of bipolar problem or schizophrenia, its use is not simply supportive in nature and it even now displays a form of treatment. When conceptualized by way of a biopsychosocial lens, even intricate health conditions like schizophrenia have a psychosocial component, and psychotherapy can legitimately be found as treating this element.5

Though substantially of the demedicalization of psychotherapy has been the outcome of harmless motives, there is also an antipsychiatry thrust to conceive of psychotherapy as something other than treatment. This line of argument goes a thing like: “Mental sickness does not exist and hence psychotherapy does not address health issues.” Szasz made these types of an assertion in his 1978 reserve The Myth of Psychotherapy,6 but his conclusions had been based on a faulty interpretation of the thought of disorder.7 One have to have not be a psychotherapist, or even area a lot stock in psychotherapy, to see the challenges inherent in this line of reasoning.

And lastly, conceptualizing psychotherapy as a medical treatment does not necessitate or indicate a principle of organic causation of psychiatric issues. The psychoanalysts of mid-century American psychiatry unquestionably seen psychotherapy as treatment in the literal sense, but handful of saw psychiatric conditions as biological health conditions. When a complete dialogue of the indicating of “disorder” in psychiatry is effectively outside of the scope of this paper, it suffices to say that one can conceptualize mental disorders as bona fide medical health conditions thanks to their affiliated suffering and incapacity, irrespective of any recognised or imputed organic abnormality.7

Concluding Views

Freud’s original intention for psychoanalysis was as a process for treating mental disease. Psychotherapy remained, for many many years, principally a form of medical treatment, even when practiced by nonphysicians. Tries to outline analysis—and, by extension, psychotherapy—in other techniques deviate traditionally from its original and principal intention. The a lot more latest software of psychotherapy to challenges unrelated to psychopathology dilutes the benefit of psychotherapy, loosens instruction requirements, and prospects unnecessarily to limitations to treatment.

Dr Ruffalo is Instructor of Psychiatry at the College of Central Florida School of Medicine in Orlando, FL, and Adjunct Instructor of Psychiatry at Tufts University University of Medicine in Boston, MA. He is a psychoanalytic psychotherapist in non-public exercise.


1. Freud S. Job for a Scientific Psychology. Typical Edition. Hogarth 1966:295-397.

2. American Psychological Affiliation. Psychotherapy. APA Dictionary of Psychology. Accessed June 20, 2021.

3. Harrington A. Head Fixers: Psychiatry’s Troubled Research for the Biology of Psychological Disease. Norton 2019.

4. Shedler J. The efficacy of psychodynamic psychotherapy. American Psychologist. 201065(2):98-109.

5. Ruffalo M. Knowing schizophrenia: Towards a unified organic and psychodynamic approach. Psychoanalytic Social Function. 201926(2):185-200.

6. Szasz T. The Fantasy of Psychotherapy. Anchor Press/Doubleday 1978.

7. Pies R. On myths and countermyths: a lot more on Szaszian fallacies. Arch Gen Psychiatry. 197936(2):139-44.