• Sun, Apr 28 2013

Destigmatizing Therapy Is Possible: Argentina Has Done It

destigmatizing-therapy

I had previously heard about how common it is for Argentinians to visit psychologists and psychoanalysts, and I was really pleased to see this interesting phenomenon receive attention on CNN today. Depending on the statistic you use, Argentina boasts 100-200 psychologists per 100,000 residents, as opposed to Canada’s 47, or just 29 in the United States (although many of these psychologists are concentrated in the capital, Buenos Aires). That many psychologists practice in Argentina because they are responding to widespread demand: Argentinians consider mental health to be on a par with bodily health, and they don’t hesitate to visit a professional to fine tune the former. Indeed, anecdotal evidence suggests that it’s not uncommon for each member of an entire Argentinian family to see a therapist on their own. At school, it may be the students who haven’t seen a therapist who find themselves in the minority.

Underlying all this therapy is a set of sociocultural beliefs that one need not be “crazy” to benefit from therapy, and that seeing a therapist is nothing to hide or feel ashamed about. These beliefs are kind of self-reinforcing: the more people who actually see therapists, the less weird it seems, encouraging even more people who might benefit from it to see therapists, and so on.

Unfortunately, it’s a little unclear as to why these permissive, laid-back beliefs have taken hold in Argentina, while mental health treatment remains so stigmatized in the United States. After all, there was a time when Freudian psychoanalysis in particular was popular here in the states, but it fell out of Americans’ favor while remaining widespread in Argentina.

One hypothesis explaining the difference in mental health attitudes between the United States and Argentina is that the U.S. has other, competing cultural norms deeply embedded in its history: individual will, a Protestant work ethic, and secrecy and shame surrounding personal problems. So, in the U.S., those suffering from anxiety or depression are often expected by friends and family to just “pull themselves up by their bootstraps,” try harder at getting better, and not to discuss such personal matters any more than absolutely necessary. These beliefs and expectations, of course, only make things worse for those struggling with mental health, and possibly even exacerbate problems that might have otherwise been nipped in the bud by some prompt clinical attention.

And, as far as I can tell, licensing of psychologists in Argentina is somewhat less stringent and more decentralized than in the United States. Lowering barriers to entry into the mental health profession increases the supply of mental health treatment available, and reduces its cost. With more people able to give therapy a try, more find it useful, and therapy’s reputation for being helpful spreads.

Although I’m not sure that ordinary “talk therapy” and Freudian psychoanalysis are the most powerful mental health tools available or appropriate for everyone (as opposed to cognitive-behavioral therapy, a topic for another time!), it sure is refreshing to see mental health being taken seriously, without serious social stigma attached. Could you see a similar trend towards destigmatizing therapy ever taking hold in the United States? Why or why not?

Image: Shutterstock

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  • kj

    As a Latin American studies major, it’s my understanding that therapy is so widely accepted because so many people in Argentina are traumatized following the dictatorship that occurred in the 80s – lots of children had parents “disappear,” and those that survived kidnapping were pretty traumatized, too. So therapy is considered part of the collective recovery process….