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Left stranded when the music stops: What to do about the shortage of talk therapists actually available

An article in the Washington Post by Lenny Bernstein: “This is why it is so hard to find mental health counseling right now” (March 6, 2022) struck a chord with many readers.[1]

The article begins by describing an individual in the Los Angeles area who said she was willing to pay hundreds of dollars per session and called some twenty-five therapists in the area but was unable to find an opening. The person willingly shared her name in the article. Be careful not to blame the survivor or victim – the report is credible – and she maintained a spreadsheet!

One of the main points of the article is that after several years of pandemic stress prospective clients and patients are at the end of their emotional rope and providers (therapists) are over-scheduled and burned out too. No availability. 

The problem is systemic. There seems to be no bottom in sight as regards the opportunistic behavior of insurance companies, the lack of behavioral health resources, and the suffering of potential patients. The WP article goes on to document other potential patients with significantly less resources who cannot even get on a wait list. The article documents third party insurance payers whose “in network” providers are unwilling to see prospective patients due to thin

Wait listed? Therapy delayed is therapy denied

reimbursements from the payer – once again, the individual is unable to get on a wait list or get help urgently needed; supply side shortages are over the top in the programs that train psychiatrists, a specialty in medicine. Psychiatrists, when available, are most often interested in lucrative fifteen-minute medication management sessions, but unless they are “old school” and were psychoanalytically trained in the “way back,” they are rarely available for conversations. This all adds up to a crisis in the availability of behavioral health services. 

This leads to my punch line. Often time depression, anxiety and emotional upset are accompanied by negative self-talk, shaky or low self-esteem. One reaches out and asks for help but instead has an experience of powerlessness that is hard to distinguish from the original emotional disequilibrium. The conversation spins in a tight circle – “maybe I deserve it – no I don’t – this sucks – I suck – help!” The person resigns himself to alife of gentile poverty, thinking she or he is not worthy of financial well-being. The prospective patient is left aggrieved. This grievance is accurate and real enough in context, but it is hard to identify what or who can make a difference. Nevertheless, there is no power in being aggrieved. One still has to do the thing the person in distress or with shaky self-esteem is least inclined to do – invest in oneself because one is worth it!

I have spoken with numerous potential and actual clients who pay a lot of money for health insurance. However, when they want to use the insurance for behavioral health services, they find the insurance is not workable. Not usable. The service level agreement is hard to understand, and having a deductible of a couple of thousand dollars is hard to distinguish from having no insurance at all. If the client goes “in network,” the therapists are unresponsive or inexperienced. If the client goes out of network, the therapists are often more experienced and able to help, but onerous deductibles and copays rear their heads. Why don’t the experienced therapists go in network? There are many reasons but one of them is that the insurer often insists the therapist accept thirty cents on the dollar in compensation, and some therapists find it hard to make ends meet that way. In short, as a potential patient, you think you have insurance, but when it comes to behavioral health, you really don’t. 

My main point is to provide guidance as to some things you can do to get the help you need with emotional or behavioral upset and do so in a timely way. Turns out one has to give an informal tutorial on using insurance as well as on emotional well-being. I hasten to add that “all the usual disclaimers apply.” This is not legal advice, medical advice, insurance advice, cooking advice or any kind of advice. This is a good faith, best efforts to share some brain storming and personal tips and techniques earned in the “college of hard knocks” in dealing with these issues. Your mileage may vary. 

Nothing I say in this article should be taken as minimizing or dismissing the gravity of your suffering or the complexity of this matter. If you are looking for a therapist or counselor, it is because you need a therapist or counselor, not a breach of contract action against an insurance company. You want a therapist not a legal case or participation in a class action law suit, even if the insurance contract has plenty of “loop holes.” For the moment, the latter is a rhetorical point only.

When a person is anxious or depressed or struggling with addiction or other emotional upset, being an informed assertive consumer of behavioral health services is precisely the thing the person is least able to do. “I need help now! Shut up and talk to me!” 

Notwithstanding my commitment to expanding a rigorous and critical empathy, here’s the tough love. Without minimizing your struggle and suffering, the thing you least want to do is what you are going to have to try to do. If one is emotionally upset, the least thing you want to do is be an assertive consumer of services designed to get you back your power in the face of emotional upset or whatever upsetting issues you are facing.

The recommendation is to speak to truth to power and assertively demand an “in network” provider from the insurance company or invest in yourself and pay the private fee for an experienced therapist whom you find authentically empathic, then you already be well on the way to getting your power back in the face of whatever issues you are facing. 

If your issue is that you really don’t have enough money (and who does?), then you may need to get the job and career coaching that will enable you to network your way forward. An inexpensive place to start is The Two Hour Job Search by Steve Dalton. Highly recommended. Note the paradox here – the very thing you do not want to do keeps coming up. You definitely need someone to talk to. Once again, the very things with which you need help are what re stopping you from getting help  

The bureaucratic indifference of insurance companies is built into the system. The idea of an insurance is a company committed to making money by spreading risk between predictable outcomes and a certain number of “adverse” [“bad risk”] events. It is not entirely fair (or even accurate) but by becoming depressed or anxious (and so on), you are already an adverse event or bad risk waiting to happen. You may expect to be treated as such by most insurance companies.

In a health insurance context, the traditional model for the use of services is a broken arm or an appendicitis (these are just two examples among many). You definitely want to have major medical insurance against such an unfortunate turn of events. Consider the possibility: Buy major medical only – and invest the difference saved in your therapy and therapist of choice.

But note these adverse medical events are relatively self-contained events – page the surgeon, perform the operation, take a week to recover or walk around in a sling for awhile. The insurance company pays the providers (doctors and hospitals) ten grand to thirty grand. That’s it. With lower back pain, headaches, irritable bowel syndrome, autoimmune disorders, it is a different story. These are notoriously difficult to diagnose and treat. Yet, modern medicine has effective imaging and treatment resources that often successfully provide significant relief if not always complete cures for the patient’s distress in these more complex cases. 

Consider similar cases in behavioral health. Start by talking to your family doctor. Okay, that is advice – talk to your family doctor for starters. Front line family doctors have the authority – and most have the basic training – needed to prescribe modern antidepressants (so called SSRIs), which also are often effective against anxiety, to treat simple forms of depression and anxiety due to life stresses such as an ongoing pandemic, job loss, relationship setbacks. 

Even though I am one of the professionals who has consistently advocated “Plato not Prozac,” I acknowledge the value of such psychopharmacological interventions from a medical doctor to get a person through a rough patch until the person can engage in a conversation for possibility and get at the underlying cause of the emotional disequilibrium. Note this implies the person wants to look for or at the underlying dynamics. This leads us to the uncomfortable suggestion that it is going to take something on the part of the client to engage and overcome the problem, issue, upset, which is stopping the client from moving forward in her or his life.

There is a large gray area in life in which people struggle with relationship issues, finances, career, education, pervasive feelings of emptiness, chronic emotional upset, self-defeating behavior in the use of substances such as alcohol and cannabis (this list is not complete). 

A medical doctor or other astute professional may even provide a medical diagnosis when the interaction of the person’s personality with the person’s life falls into patterns of struggle, upset, and failure. Insurance companies require a medical diagnosis. One thinks of such codable disorders as adjustment disorder or personality disorders (PD) such as narcissistic, histrionic, schizoid, antisocial, or borderline PD. These are labels which can be misleading and even dangerous to apply without talking to the person and getting to know them over a period of time. It’s not like the Psychology Today headline – top three ways to know if you are dating a narcissist. I am calling “BS” on that approach. 

Nevertheless, if after a thorough process of inquiry, some such label is appropriate (however useless the label may otherwise be except for insurance purposes), then the cost will be right up there with “fixing” an appendicitis – only you won’t be able to do it in a single day – and it won’t be that kind of “fix”. An extended effort and of hard to predict duration must be anticipated, lasting from months even to years. This is not good news, but there are options. 

My commitment is to expanding a rigorous and critical empathy in the individual and the community. I consider that I am an empathy consultant, though at times that is hard to distinguish from a therapeutic process and inquiry into the possibilities of health and behavioral well-being. Therefore, and out of this commitment, I have a sliding scale fee structure for my consulting and related empathy services. People call me up and say “I make a lot of money, and want to pay you more.” Of course, that is a joke. I regularly hear from prospective clients whose first consideration is financial. They do not have enough money. I take this assertion seriously, and I discuss finances with them. Between school debt and the economic disruptions of three years of pandemic, people are hurting in many ways including financially. One must be careful NEVER to blame the victim or survivor. 

The best way for such financially strapped individuals to go froward is to find an “in network” provider. Key term: in network. But we just read the Washington Post article that furnishes credible evidence such networks are tapped out, in breakdown, not working. Those that are working well enough often deal with the gray area of emotional upset and life challenges by moving the behavioral health component to a separate corporate subsidy at a separate location to deal with all aspects of behavioral health. (See above on “bad risk.”) When I had such an issue years ago, I had to search high and low to get the phone number, web site, or US postal address. You can’t make this stuff up. This is because ultimately, the issues that come up are nothing like an appendicitis or even hard to diagnose migraines. Moving the paying entity to a corporate subsidy is also a way that the insurance company can impose a high deductible and/or copay by carving out that section of the business and claims processing. There are other reasons, too, but basically, they are financial. 

You may be starting to appreciate that many health insurance contracts are not really designed to provide behavioral health services (e.g., therapy) the way they are designed to address a broken leg or appendicitis. There is a way forward, but it is more complex (and expensive in terms of actual dollar, though not necessarily time and effort). I will address this starting in the paragraph after next, because, sometimes in the case of behavioral health, people who have insurance do not  really have useable, workable behavioral health insurance. For all intents and purposes, they think they have insurance, but, in this specific regard, they have a piece of paper and a phone number that is hard to find. I hasten to add I am not recommending going without major medical health insurance, inadequate though it may be in certain respects.

This brings us to those individuals who decide to go without insurance. What about them? Such individuals choose to take the risk. They are living dangerously because if they do break an arm or incur an appendicitis, then they are going to have another $30K in medical debt [this number is approximate and probably low], along with a mountain of school debt, credit card debt, and bad judgment debt (this list is not complete). These good people need insurance, not so much to get therapy – because, as the accumulating evidence indicates, it really doesn’t work that way – as to be insured against a major medical accident. Many people are not clear on this distinction, but I would urge them to consider the possibility. 

I spoke with this one prospective client who began with a long and authentically moving narrative that she did not have enough money and could not afford therapy. This is common and not particularly confidential or sensitive. As part of a no fee first interview to establish readiness for therapy, I acknowledged her courage in strength in reaching out to someone she did not really know to get help with her problems. I acknowledged that one of her problems was she did not have enough money. A bold statement of the obvious. I asked if there was anything else she wanted to work on. It turns out that she was a survivor of a number of difficult situations and would benefit from both empathy consulting, and talk therapy – and I might add job coaching. Here’s the thing – when a person is hurting emotionally, they do not want to look for another job – or a better job that pays more money. But one just might have to do that, at least over the short term, with someone who can provide that kind of guidance to those who are willing. I encouraged her to be assertive with her insurance company and I heard she found someone in network at a low rate. 

And if you are a therapist who believes such job coaching compromises the purity or neutrality of the therapy, I would agree. However, never say never. In the aftermath of World War I, when the victorious allies maintained a starvation blockage on Germany and Austria even into 1919, Freud (that would be Sigmund) was reportedly seeing a client in exchange for a substantial bag of potatoes. I have no facts – none – but I find it hard to believe they were discussing matters pertinent to individual and collective survival. So far no one has offered me a bag of potatoes (I am holding out for a quantity of olive oil and basil to make pesto), but see the above cited article from the Washington Post

We circle back to where we started. If the individual named in the Washington Post article has not yet found a therapist, then I believe there are many in the Chicago area would welcome the opportunity to make a difference for her. She has a budget for therapy, she says. If you have a budget, the work goes forward. It can be confronting and difficult to contemplate, but if you were buying a car, you would look at your budget. If you were planning a vacation, you would think about your vacation budget. If you were thinking of going back to school, you would look at your education budget. You get the idea. What is your budget for empathy consulting, counseling, talk therapy, cognitive retraining, life coaching, or medication management services (this are all distinct interventions, appropriate in different circumstances)? Zero may not be the right number. Just saying.  Of course, if the client is in LA and the empathy consultant is in Chicago, it would be a conversation over Zoom. That starts a new thread so I may usefully clarify that I prefer to meet with people in person – the empathy is expanded in person – but the genie is out of the bottle and online can be good enough in some circumstance. (See my peer reviewed article “The Genie is Out of the Bottle”: https://bit.ly/37vxJ0L.)

The insurance system is broken as regards behavioral health (as evidenced by the WP article). There is a vast gray area of people with modest emotional disregulation who genuinely need help. These are not only the “worried well,” but people whose understandable lack of assertiveness in navigating an indifferent (and it must be said unempathic) bureaucracy leaves them high and dry with their moderate but worsening emotional, spiritual, and behavioral upsets. These people deserve help, and are entitled to it even under the specific terms of their insurance contracts. Indeed they are entitled to help even if they do not have insurance, though the revenue model is simpler in that case, though not less costly. 

The insurance company has been unable to make money off of this gray area – therefore, the insurance company does what it does best – it turns to making money off of you. But you need health insurance against a major medical event or accident. You want a therapist, not a breach of contract case in small claims court (where the small claim often goes up to $100k). Therefore, it does little good to document having called ten or twenty-five in network providers with no result. Or does it? You – or a class action attorney firm – have a case for breach of contract. Go out of network and forward the invoices to the payer by mail with a tracking number, requesting that the full therapy fees be treated “in network” for purposes of reimbursement, and, therefore, no or low deductible and copay. Of course, one would have to have funds for that upfront, and lack of money is where this circle started. Back to expanding one’s job search skills?

This is crazy – and crazy making behavior – though only as a function of a system that is crazy. You see the problem. I’ll bet dollars to donuts that the insurance payer, when confronted with an actual summons to small claims court, would then find you a therapist – of course, the therapist might be relatively inexperienced or someone who (how shall I put it delicately?) is less motivated than one might hope. Thwarted again! 

As I wrap up this post, it occurs to that while it would be crazy for an individual to seek legal redress – it might even be “acting out,” there might be a basis for an enterprising law firm to establish a system wide “class action” for breach of contract. This will not solve your  problem of getting help in the next two weeks, but it might be a necessary step to benefit the community. You know the insurance company has the money! 

As noted above, your grievance in being over sold unworkable behavioral health insurance may be [is] accurate and real. Nevertheless, I am sticking to my story: the guidance: there is no power in being aggrieved. You still have to do the thing the person in upset or with shaky self-esteem is least inclined to do – dig down, including into your pockets, and find self-confidence – or enough self-confidence for the moment – and invest in yourself because you are worth it!

The one minute empathy training – runtime is actually five minutes, but a personal introduction is included: https://youtu.be/747OiV-GTx4


[1] https://www.washingtonpost.com/health/2022/03/06/therapist-covid-burnout/

Noted in Passing: Elizabeth Wurtzel, Author, Prozac Nation

Elizabeth Wurtzel (1967–2020) died at the age of 52 on January 7th in New York City of metastatic breast cancer. Wurtzel became a notorious “bad girl,” with a wicked sense of black humor, sparing few, least of all herself, and a disarming “tell all” candor in her break through memoir Prozac Nation.

Full disclosure: I am catching up on my reading. Triggered by Wurtzel’s passing

Elizabeth Wurtzel (her young self): Cover Art: Prozac Nation

Elizabeth Wurtzel (her young self): Cover Art: Prozac Nation

away, I had not read her best selling Prozac Nation until earlier this week (01/14/2020). I acknowledge I need to get out more.

Now I am familiar with pathographies – autobiographies and biographies of mental pathology – having read Kay Redfield Jamison’s An Unquiet Mind, Jamison’s “Robert Lowell: Setting the River on Fire: A Study of Genius, Mani, and Character,” and Elyn Saks’ The Center Will Not Hold, all worth reading – as is Prozac Nation. Thus, I bring an innocent reading – and eye – to a work that is anything but innocent.

Wurtzel is credited with putting the funny but self-lacerating memoir on the literary map, with its account of her emotional struggles against the Black Wave of depression, volatile internal conflicts, and acting out in the form of cutting, starting at age eleven. Subsequent attempts to attain emotional equilibrium through substance abuse and volatile relationships with members of the opposite sex, the narrative actually turns into a coming of age story. Some coming; some aging.

Not quite stream of consciousness, but definitely a rapid fire, back-and-forth conversation of Wurtzel with herself, it puts me in mind of the cliché: your mind can be a bad neighborhood; if you go there, you are going to get mugged, albeit in a comical way; mugged by negative self-talk, devaluing self assessments, and rage at the narcissistic slights inflicted by intimates, strangers, and intimate-strangers alike.

Wurtzel’s writing is shot from a cannon. The character sketches are wickedly funny and just as cutting as her own practices of self-injury. One example: “If Archer weren’t so good-looking, I’m not sure he’d exist at all, since he lacks most vital signs [….][H]e is the best opportunity to hang out with a gorgeous man and be certain that there will be no sexual tension whatsoever” (p. 224).

Wurtzel literally calls out the elephant in her family’s living room early in the narrative (p. 58): her parents are fighting, from the time Elizabeth is two years old, when her mom divorces her dad. The parents continue to fight (including in court) throughout her childhood, adolescence, and emerging adulthood, all the while “telling me that their [hostile] feelings for one another shouldn’t affect me,” blaming the victim if she feels affected, making the child an unwitting pawn.

Usually an emotion will shift after a few hours and a depression will shift after a few months, even if no intervention is undertaken other than good rest and good nourishment. To keep the disorder in place, active measure must be undertaken by the person, environment or both. The ongoing family situation is a significant contributor to the extraordinary duration of the distress.

It gets worse. The dad has access to health benefits through a good, albeit low level, corporate job; but it seems that every time the growing Wurtzel gets into an emotional crisis (chronic emergency would be more like it), the dad stops paying for psychotherapy, telling her its nothing personal. The real reason is usually a dust up with the mom.

Queue up the late rock-and-roller Stevie Ray Vaughn: Caught in the cross fire. Elizabeth is. She cannot help but internalize the conflict. Any kid would. This is the way it is. It starts so early and continues so unremittingly, that one must be positively as blind as the parents not to see it: this is an invalidating environment.

Another example of invalidation that might be straight out of Heinz Kohut, MD: “For instance, I’ll walk into her [mom’s] apartment and she’ll just blurt out, Those shoes are so ugly! And I never asked her. And I like my shoes […] The concept of Who asked you? does not exist in my family […] We’re all meshed together” (p. 231). Unremitting, serial breakdowns in empathy, resulting in emotional contagion, conflict, and enmeshment with the toxic self-object and hostile introject. Ouch!

Abandonment comes up early and often. In year-after-year of being sent off to a different camp, depending on which one offers a discount to her and her mom, who are living in a kind of genteel poverty. It induces a real panic about abandonment in the young Wurtzel, resulting in dozens of calls requesting rescue. Having been dutifully rehearsed during latency, this fear takes on a life of its own. “[…] [B]eing alone turns into a terrible fear that I will have no friends” (p. 89).

In several relationships with college BFs (at Harvard College) Wurtzel cries and cries sad tears, angry tears, at the prospect of separation such that the behavior creates the dreaded self-fulfilling prophecy. She goes well beyond “high maintenance” into the land of continuous confrontation, just plain crazy shit, and the bottomless pit of infinite upset all the time. Meanwhile, the guy wants a friend with whom he can go to the movies and party, maybe perform some consensual sex acts between reading about Derrida and Marxism. Enough.

Years later it comes out. The man Elizabeth thought was her dad, who was divorced after two years by the mom, and who also thought he was the dad, is not the biological father. Even though he did not have the DNA data, somehow he was never able to relate to Elizabeth in quite the proper parental way. (See the article by Wurtzel entitled Bastard, cited at the bottom of this post.)

Wurtzel has a gift for zingy one-liners, coming out of the blue, and yet creating their own context instantaneously. As regards the above-cited elephant, “We went to Alaska and we froze to death” (58) – emotionally. More like the abandoning, ice box father and the bonfire mother. Things heat up, especially with her mom: “I come from a family of screamers” (p. 185). Balance is hard to find.

The subtitle is “Young and depressed in America,” and one can sees Wurtzel’s editor’s skillful hand in connecting the dots between individual suffering, of which there is an abundance, and the breakdown of communities, ongoing, whether due to globalization, an opioid epidemic, or the malling / mauling of America.

The reader learns the difference between sadness and negative self-talk and what we might call existential depression: “I’d been expelled from the place where possibility still existed” (p. 60). Depression is the loss of the possibility of possibility. It is not just that I lose love and long for love; I lose the possibility of the possibility of love. This is gonna be tough going.

This is definitely a page-turner. Hard to put down. However, there are also some loose ends. I mean in the narrative, looser than Wurtzel herself. 

The title is premised on the interpretation that Wurtzel suffered between the ages of eleven and twenty one from a hard to treat Black Wave. Tons of talk therapy – finally she can’t stop crying for days – and not for the first time – and her shrink prescribes an anti-psychotic – Mellaril [thioridazine] – and its anticholinergic effects promptly dry up her mucus membranes, allowing her “to get a grip on it.” She is able to stop crying.

I am reading this passage and scratching my head. This is an emergency measure, right? Wurtzel is a lot of things, but her reality testing of the everyday is good enough. I know nothing, really, and am not a prescriber. However, I have been know to echo Lou Marinoff’s saying, “Plato, not Prozac!” And yet: An actual antidepressant such as imipramine or disiprimine would have had the same anticholinergic effects, have dried up the tears physiologically, and it might actually also operate as an antidepressant, would it not?!

Perhaps it was because of the unremitting of suicidal ideation that Wurtzel endorsed and expressed that no medical doctor recommended a tricyclic antidepressant. A person can actually hurt themselves with the tricyclic antidepressants, as with any powerful drug, which can cause a fatal heart arrhythmia if consumed contrary to proper guidance and in volume. But if this is supposed to be an emergency measure, a small number of pills in small dosages, closely supervised, would also have been possible would it not? Was Wurtzel getting adequate medical treatment even by advanced 1994 care standards? We may never know.

I am not one noted to value psychiatric labels, seeing them as getting in the way of being fully present with the other person as a possibility. Yet Wurtzel has a breakthrough towards the end of her narrative when she gets one – a label – along with the newly available fluoxetine (Prozac). Her psychiatrist gives her a diagnosis of atypical depression. I would add, demonstrably treatment resistant. “Atypical” because years of talk therapy and first line antipsychotics have barely made a dent in her unremitting self-abuse, inclination to self-medicate with weed, alcohol, and acting out with a series of boy friends, a couple of whom are the target of an intense romantic idealization combined with a neediness calculated eventually to drive them all away. However, at this point, the Prozac seems to work – except that about two weeks after starting to take it, she is feeling a tad better, and her only serious suicide attempt reported in the book occurs. Hold that thought.

One thing lifted Wurtzel’s work head and shoulders above your average narrative of suffering and redemption for me. Wurtzel is working through her invalidating environment and she gets it: “…[M]y addiction to depression …involved the same mental mechanism as someone else’s alcoholism” (p. 23).

Suffering is sticky. The risk of suffering is that it becomes an uncomfortable comfort zone. The body and the mind adapt to chronic pain and chronic stress. Even when the result is still pain, not numbness, the entire messy complex takes on a life of its own and becomes: suffering. If you water the tree of your sorrows, the tree grows. It grows until the suffering becomes the man-eating plant in the back of the Broadway play Little Shop of Horrors. That seems to have been going on here.

Empathy lessons occur in abundance in Prozac Nation, but they are mostly in a privative mode – that is, empathy is conspicuously missing.

Wurtzel is hungry for someone to respond to her as a whole person, writing: “I love you and I support you just the way you are because you’re wonderful just the way you are. They don’t understand that I don’t remember anyone ever saying that to me” (p. 231).

Wurtzel’s mother “loves” her as long as (if) she is brilliant, gets into Harvard, and they can continue intermittently to tear at one another’s guts on special occasions. He dad “loves” her as long as she does not make herself too needy, will pose for his photos, and otherwise leave him alone. Her friends “love” her as long she as is funny and amazing and the life of the party. Her boy friends “love” her as long as she continues to put out, which she does all too casually, leaving her feeling cheap. The impingements come fast and thick; here “love” means acknowledging someone as a whole human being, i.e., empathy; but no one gets her as a possibility.  

My take on it? If, at any point, someone would have given her a good sustained listening, something important would have shifted. Nor is it quite so simple. Her suffering would not have been magically disappeared; but it would have been decisively reduced. Once again, we will never know for sure.

Page after page of this page-turner, Wurtzel is explicitly crying out for “love,” and people are trying to love this individual, who seemingly inevitably gets caustically cutting towards others or becomes a needy emotional sponge, an unlovable rag of self-pity, albeit with a sense of humor, driving them away. Thus, Wurtzel’s ultimate test of love: love me even when I am deep down unlovable. It doesn’t work that well.

One can have empathy with the loveable but loving the unlovable is a high bar, by definition impossible. This person needs the firm boundaries of a rigorous and critical empathy. But instead Wurtzel’s friends and counselors efforts are lost in translation and become emotional contagion, projection, and inconsistent efforts to force compliance and conformity.

Finally, Wurtzel does get some empathy from the shrink disguised in the narrative as “Dr Sterling.” She was. Wurtzel writes: “Dr Sterling knew that somewhere in my personality there was a giggly girl who just wanted to have fun, and she thought it was important that I be allowed to express that aspect of myself (pp. 211–212). Predictably the breakdowns and out-of-attunements are frequent. The cutting remits but the acting out – street drugs, sexual misadventures (including the “accidental blow job”), and repetitive, endless phone calls – ramp up.

So what happens? Along comes Prozac [fluoxetine] and Dr Sterling gives it to her. Wurtzel is feeling better as a result of the medicine. But “better” is relative. Wurtzel gets into it with her psychiatrist, and she locks herself in the bathroom and takes the whole bottle of Mellaril [thioridazine], knowing that her shrink is waiting outside the door for her. As Wurtzel feels herself going under from the effects of the drug and she hears her shrink shouting outside the door, she unlocks it.

Now never say that someone who threatens suicide or actually swallows the pills is not suicidal. Never. People have been known to be all-too-unlucky in such situations and succeed where they are using a bad method to try and solve the problem of their suffering. I suggest this was one of those, and arguably as a result of the un-inhibiting effects of the Prozac.

Those are such facts as reported in the narrative. Throughout the book, Wurtzel is plagued by suicidal thoughts, she cuts herself and engages in taking street drugs and crazy sex, but not until she gets the Prozac does she actually take action and make a serious attempt at suicide. Hmmm.

I am not making this up. It is in the book. Has anyone read it since 1994? This is the book entitled “Prozac Nation” and is regarded as some kind of strange endorsement for Prozac. Wurtzel subsequently and consistently denied it was an endorsement of fluoxetine [Prozac], emphasizing her commitment to being self-expressed. That she succeeds in doing in spades. Definitely. What some authors won’t do to move some copy!

I read Wurtzel’s memoir for the first time ever upon learning of her passing on January 7, 2020. We can measure the distance between the publication in 1994 and today in that of all the reviews between then and now no one – not one – mentioned that the fear of abandonment, the invalidating early environment and ongoing invalidating entanglement with the warring parents, the volatile emotions (especially atypical depression), volatile relationships, volatile self-identity, and para suicidal behavior are the check list for borderline personality disorder.  I hasten to add checklists are overrated, and I acknowledge I might have missed something.

However, it does put me in mind of a quotation from Marsha Linehan, innovator in Dialectical Behavioral Therapy (DBT), and who, in the  video cited below, is talking on camera with permission with an avowedly suicidal patient. Linehan says: “I think it is good that you see it as a problem that you feel suicidal and want to fix that; but suicide is not so much a problem as a solution.” Pause for jaw dropping effect. “People’s lives are so messed up that they want to check out as away of solving the problem. What our program does is help you find a better solution – so it is not really a suicide prevention program so much as a life worth living program.”

Elizabeth Wurtzel succeeded in having one of those lives worth living, even without a formal program and in spite of all the challenges put in her path by accidents of biology, early experience, and her own demons. She had gifts aplenty and she managed to use them to attain a good measure of power, freedom, and full self-expression. Above all, self-expression. We are enriched by Wurtzel’s comet-like trajectory through our post-modern modernity and diminished by her passing. It is truly an ask-not-for-whom-the-bell-tolls moment.

REFERENCES

Elizabeth Wurtzel, (1994) Prozac Nation: Young and Depressed in America, New York: Mariner Books (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt (paperback edition), pp. 339, $16.99.

‘I believe in love’: Elizabeth’s Wurtzel’s final year, in her own words by Elizabeth Wurtzel, https://gen.medium.com/i-believe-in-love-elizabeth-wurtzel-s-final-year-in-her-own-words-e34320e41ee0 

Bastard Neither of my parents was exactly who I thought they were by Elizabeth Wurtzel, https://www.thecut.com/2018/12/elizabeth-wurtzel-on-discovering-the-truth-about-her-parents.html

Elizabeth Wurtzel by Liz Phair, June 16, 2017, https://www.interviewmagazine.com/culture/elizabeth-wurtzel

Lou Agosta, (2018), Empathy Lessons, Chicago: Two Pears Press: https://www.amazon.com/Lou-Agosta/e/B07Q4XX6PF/ref=dp_byline_cont_book_1

Marsha Linehan talks with a patient about borderline personality disorder and dialectical behavioral therapy: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tgzw50SbokM

© Lou Agosta, PhD and the Chicago Empathy Project

Interpersonal Therapy (IPT) Gets Traction: Dynamic Therapy “Lite”?

Review of: The Guide to Interpersonal Psychotherapy: Updated and Expanded Edition (2007/2018), Myrna M. Weissman, John C. Markowitz, Gerald L. Klerman; Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 283 pp. ($34.10 (US$)).

Interpersonal therapy (IPT) is a promising, evidence-based, talk therapy. IPT is the innovative brainchild of Gerald L. Klerman, Myrna M. Weissman, John C. Markowitz, and a team of dedicated professionals. IPT has received expanding CoverArtGuideToInterpersonalPsychotherapyattention since the mid- and late 2000s.

This book is an IPT manual and it emphasizes:  It is important to keep IPT grounded in affect. Therapy feels meaningful to the patient when it comes alive with emotions related to important issues in the patient’s life. The IPT sessions focus each meeting on a recent, affectively charged event in the patient’s life. In short, the therapist encourages the patient to talk about what happened in their life during the past week. Sounds familiar?

The novice practitioner – perhaps a resident in psychiatry who has been concentrating on psychopharmacology, because that is the prevailing paradigm – is given helpful scripts (what to say to the patient):  “In interpersonal psychotherapy, we work on the connection between your feelings and your life situation. In the next X weeks, we will work on unfulfilled wishes and problematic relationships that are contributing to your depression. You should begin to become more comfortable with your feelings in problematic close relationships and decide how to use them to change the relationship/situation you’re in”  (p. 106).

Originally developed as an intervention for depression, IPT has been progressively extended to other disorders including anxiety, trauma, and personality disorders including borderline personality disorder. Also of note, IPT demonstrably does not work for substance abuse, including alcohol.

IPT draws on the insight of dynamic psychotherapy that events in the patient’s life evoke strong feelings (or not) and that the processing of those feelings (or not) contributes to the patient’s behavior in the community. The “deep history” of the work invokes the tradition of Harry Stack Sullivan (1842 – 1949) and the William Alanson White Institute, acknowledging the interaction of the cultural dynamics between the self and the community.

IPT acknowledges that sadness and depressed mood are part of the human condition. Low mood is a nearly universal response to disruption of close interpersonal relations. John Bowlby argued that attachment bonds [key term: attachment] are necessary to survival: the attachment of the helpless infant to the mother helps to preserve the infant’s life and well-being (p. 10).

However, the resemblance between IPT and the anti-psychiatry sometimes characteristic of the Neo-Freudians such as Sullivan or Bowlby is soon dispelled. IPT embraces the medical model, asserting that (e.g.) depression is an illness such as the flu or even an appendicitis. IPT proudly embraces the common factor – something shared by all [or most] forms of psychotherapy – that the role of doctor and patient are essential to the process.

 The IPT doctor is active in educating the patient about what to expect and what to do, along with more subtle forms of inspirational guidance and suggestion. While the patient may usefully learn directly from experience as redescribed in the process of therapy, he or she had better do so promptly – as the process is time-limited to some sixteen sessions.

The time-limit is an essential part of IPT, acting as a “forcing function” to cause both patient and doctor – but mostly the patient – to “cut to the chase,” say what is bothering her, and take action to do something about it. Hence, IPT’s strengths – the cost is relatively predictable and insurance payers love that – it is relatively easy to define a comparative process test (say, against CBT or psychopharm) – and grant writers and approvers like that – and its weaknesses – it is time-limited.

One clarification upfront. When the trainers of interpersonal therapy say that it is “interpersonal,” they do not mean that the therapy targets the relationship between the patient and the therapist. “Interpersonal” means that it is about the interpersonal relationships in the patient’s life.

The powerful insight of IPT is that the way the person feels about what is going on in her or his life results in behavior, including symptomatic behavior such as depression and anxiety, that remits if one connects the dots between the two, i.e., between the feelings as called forth in the therapy and the dysfunctional symptoms.  IPT is unconcerned about transference or the deep past of childhood and it tries to identify the focal interpersonal problem area in the patient’s current life. “IPT does not interpret the transference, but rather helps the patient to relate emotions to interpersonal interactions in the here and now” (p. 74) – otherwise known as interpreting the transference.

Basically, with some conditions and qualifications, the patient is allowed one problem area, though each of the area is potentially vast and overlapping: grief (e.g., death, loss), role disputes (interpersonal conflict), role transitions (e.g., divorce), and interpersonal deficits of attachment (aloneness, isolation) (p. 11). 

According to Weissman and Markowitz, more than 100 clinical trials of IPT (Barth et al., 2013; Cuijpers et al., 2008, 2011, 2016) are available (p. 12). That is what makes IPT so attractive as “dynamic therapy lite”, especially to psychiatrics who find prescribing insufficient to produce wellbeing in their patients.

The meta analysis by Cuijpers et al. (2016 / see the excellent and extensive bibliography in the book), based on eight randomized trials, suggests efficacy for anxiety disorders: “In anxiety disorders, IPT had large effects compared with control groups, and there is no evidence that IPT was less effective than CBT.” No less effective, but perhaps also no more. [P. 187] However, for those entry level therapists who are not comfortable with the over-intellectualizations of CPT, IPT can have an advantage of validating an approach that empathically gets one in touch with emotions and feelings.

A recurring theme in this approach is that IPT talks to patients about how they feel about what is happening or has happened in their lives and invites patients to make the crucial recognition that their interpersonal encounters evoke strong feelings. Then the IPT mantra (at least in this text):  that, rather than being “bad” or “dangerous,” feelings provide interpersonal information (e.g., anger means someone is bothering you) they can reflect upon and use to handle their environment.

The instructions to the IPT psychiatrist in training? “Your aim will be to link the patient’s interpersonal situation (a spouse’s affair, a mother’s death, a move to a different city) to the onset of symptoms in a brief contextualizing narrative that makes sense to both the patient and you. [….] Use the initial sessions to ensure that you have focused on a pivotal, emotionally meaningful area for the patient and that you have ruled out surprises that might otherwise arise later in treatment” (p. 36).

So, for example, IPT points out that patients with panic disorder experience their paralyzing physical attacks as coming “out of the blue,” yet most talk therapies, including IPT, suggest that panic is a response to interpersonal events: one study found that three-quarters of panic patients had had an interpersonal loss within six weeks of panic onset (p. 191).

 So what happens when, for example, a woman who presents saying, “My children are my big problem” later, as she gets to know you, calls out the more pressing area of distress: her spouse’s extramarital affair? Given the time-limited name of the treatment, what to say? Well, IPT tries to address this typical situation, allowing for “maintenance,” typically once a month extensions. Twice a month? However, somehow extended the duration of the sessions by means of maintenance seems not  to be the right answer. A new contract and a new engagement is needed.

IPT is quite explicit about giving patients the Sick Role. This does indeed relieve patients of blame. It is not your fault – you are sick. “The sick role excuses patients from what their illness precludes them from doing, but it carries the responsibility to work as a patient to get better” (p. 115). Definitely. A sensible trade-off.

However, the therapist is then left with the difficulty that the illness in question – depression, anxiety, trauma, personality disorder, and so on – is significantly unlike most other diseases in the world of medicine. Yes, there is an underlying molecular process; but it is just that, in most cases, science has not identified the biomarkers.

The IPT role-playing script (p. 39) suggests telling the patient that depression is no different the appendicitis or the flu. Wow. Don’t call Carl Rogers – page the surgeon! We can cure an appendicitis even if the patient is unconscious. Indeed at a certain point in the treatment it is required. However, that is not the case with a significant mental disorder. You cannot cure an unconscious psychiatric patient. More to the point, today the patient’s intentional participation in the process is required.

I can’t resist. The history of the heroic age of psychiatry does present “the sleep cure.” Stay in bed for about three months, highly sedated, with the doctor on call fulltime, waking the person once every twenty four hours for nourishment and bowel movement, and at the end of three months – voila! – something significant has shifted – the individual no longer feels depressed. This is the reduction to absurdity of the medical model – yet, in its day, it worked!

For example, in the case of complicated grief, treatment is not a sign of disrespect for the deceased – but that respect is the way treatment shows up – LIVES– for the patient. Complicated grief is a form of depression (p. 45). The doctor must truly have a magisterial authority in order to overcome the patient’s commitment to her or his suffering. You see the problem? It says right there in the manual: your grief is really depression. But the patient’s experience is that they cannot live without the other person. Yes, it violates the IPT contract that the person seems unwilling or unable to try. That is the therapy – you are in violation of your therapeutic contract?

Whereas in CBT, a therapist might ask a patient to look at the evidence about an anxious thought, an IPT therapist lets the patient sit with the feelings, pointing out at an opportune moment that guilt is a actually a symptom of the depression. What is the evidence that when your friend does not answer your text message, it is because she or he is cheating on you? Are there any facts here? In IPT rather, let’s talk about your feelings about the relationship: have you ever had any feelings of temptation towards cheating? In short, in IPT the therapy is to talk about the temptation (loss, fear, anger, and so on) and bring forth a catharsis – yes, it says it right there in the manual – catharsis makes you better.

IPT acknowledges the need to manage magical thinking, but IPT does not call it that]: The bereaved person fears that if they recover from the grief (i.e., the depressive episode), it means they did not love the deceased as much as they had believed. To their way of thinking, if they really loved the person, the loss would be so great that they could never recover. The treatment? Acknowledge, validate, and work through the loss by talking about it. In that sense, IPT is a talking cure.

The guidance for those practicing IPT (p. 57)?  Ask for the details of the interaction. Often, the patient will come in with in interpretation: “He is a jerk.” Okay, got it; but what did he actually say? : “What did you say? What did he say? How did you feel then? Then what did you say?” and so on. Get in touch with facts and feelings. The reconstruction of interpersonal encounters provides a sense of how the patient functions interpersonally, what may be going wrong in the relationship, and where the patient ignores or suppresses emotional responses to the other party

It is a strong point of IPT’s approach to treatment – get the facts. Freud pointed out long ago – the patient comes in and cannot give a coherent account of his or her life. Freud noted the gaps – repression – but equally important are the distorted communications, interpretations, and positions. “The boss is a jerk.” “Okay – I got that – what did he actually say?”

For those curious as to what is a “role transition”:  Moving one’s household, taking a new career or job, leaving home after school or divorce, being diagnosed with a serious medical condition, taking on new responsibilities due to the illness of a family member, or a change (decline) in economic status, are other examples of life role transitions. Refugee status has become a transition problems for significant populations in many countries.

Unlike many descriptions of cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), IPT focuses on discussing feelings, normalizing them as responses to interpersonal interactions and as useful interpersonal information, and using them to take action to change the patient’s interactions in order to resolve the identified problem area (p. 88). That a person feels angry about a perceived or actual interaction contains valuable information for the person, which is usually overlooked due to over-intellectualization or being overwhelmed by emotions (under-intellectualization).

IPT emphasizes, “depression is a medical vulnerability, sort of like having an ulcer. If you should get depressed in the future, the important thing to remember is that it’s a treatable illness, it’s not your fault, and you just need to return for treatment, the way you would for any other medical problem” (p. 113).

IPT is a sensible, practical approach. The take away is that whatever the intervention one should actively try to solve the problem – working on solving the problem = x drives the therapy. The hidden / confounding variable is that the problem seems to be = x but is actually = y or = (x & y). In that case, the openness of psychodynamic therapy will surface an issue of which IPT remains unaware. Of course, the process will require more time.

There are many applications of IPT – to postpartum depression, depression in adolescents, depression in children of tender age (recommendation: treat the parent(s), depression in senior citizen, – here we go into the weed, there are many studies, and the results are generally favorable – the guidance? If one tries, one gets better.

Since this is not a softball review, the most critical thing I can think to say is that it is not really treating what the DSM describes as depression – it is treating stress – and there is nothing wrong with that – the cytokine theory of depression makes the case that “depression” is “sickness behavior” – this aligns well with the repetition (nearly ad nauseam) to the patient that “depression” is a sickness like the flu or [incredibly] enough an appendicitis. Okay, let’s take this seriously. This is supposed to be a common factor – but you would not hear Carl Rogers say it. You would not hear CBT practitioners say it – rather they would say, “you have a skills deficit – and while that is not your fault, no one ever taught you the skill, we are not “blaming” biology, we are blaming the parent or the early environment

At times and at risk of over-simplification, CBT is committed to how thinking causes, brings forth, determines one’s feelings. IPT emphasizes how one’s emotional experiences cause, bring forth, and determine one’s thinking. “Therapists work hard with […] patients to identify emotions— and particularly negative affect and feelings of competitiveness, anger, and sadness— that arise in everyday situations. The therapist and patient discuss whether such feelings are understandable and warranted. The idea of a transgression— that there are some behaviors that break expected social conduct, warrant anger, and deserve at the least an apology— may be helpful in normalizing such feelings for patients” (see p. 164).

I call out some statements that, strictly speaking, make no sense: “Klerman advocated for research standards in psychotherapy that were comparable to those in pharmacotherapy research” (p. 12). Okay, but: The authors cannot be referring to double blind testing where neither the patient nor the doctor knows what treatment he is delivering. I am giving you CBT versus IPT versus psychopharm, but neither of us knows what it is. Notwithstanding the many useful results provided by IPT practitioners, this points to a significant blind spot.

A silly statement by the authors, in which the authors get carried away with their own greatness: “No other psychotherapies explicitly focus on the IPT problem areas” (p. 106). Really? Counter-examples? Freud’s “Mourning and melancholia”? Life transitions in DBT? Lack of skills in CBT? Role disputes and discrepancies (all of the above)?

Another thing that seems just plain crazy to this author is the approach to trauma, though, once again, trauma survivors have benefited from IPT in evidence-based studies. IPT acknowledges accurately: The trauma explains why the patient is struggling interpersonally, but receives no further direct discussion (p. 195). However, a time occurs in most conversations with trauma survivors (with or without a bit of nudging) when the trauma seems to erupt – spontaneously comes up – and IPT ties the therapist’s hands because she or he cannot engage with it. Why not? It is not part of the definition of IPT? The researchers are doing an evidence-based study and to do so would “confuse” the modality with exposure focused treatments? So much the worse for the evidence ( am inclined to say). If the patient brings up the trauma and is willing – indeed wants and give every evidence of wanting to talk about it – then it would be unethical not to do so. Did anyone think of that?

The ultimate true but trivial statement, apparently now required to be fully buzzword compliant: “Neuroimaging studies have shown that psychotherapy changes your brain chemistry [Brody et al., 2001; Martin et al., 2001 9see the excellent bibliography in the book itself for details)]: it’s a biological treatment” (p. 110). Hey, studying French will change your brain and brain chemistry. Studying French is now a biological treatment?

Time-limits are essential to IPT and are a kind of “good news,” “bad news” sort of practice. Freud himself made use of setting a time limit in the case of Sergei Pankejeff (“the Wolf Man”) when Freud felt, after months and months of work, the treatment was stalled, the patient was living in genteel poverty, burring through his modest fortune, couldn’t pay, and it was time to fish or cut bait (my expression, not Freud’s). It seemed to have worked, or at least worked well enough, as a “forcing function.” However, this parameter on Freud’s part was used on an exception basis. IPT takes the “forcing function” and makes it the rule. In fact, traditional Freudians may see IPT as a case collection of parameters (exceptional practices that are employed in the face of contingencies in treatment) that try to add up to “psychoanalysis lite.”

The risk is that while a medical molecular process may not aware of the clock, the blind spots, self-deceptions, and self-serving behaviors by which people afflict themselves unwittingly are acutely aware of the passage time. Therefore, the “disorder” goes under ground until the time is up. In a telling analogy, the process is like announcing to the local armed insurgency, freedom fighters, or your opponent of choice that the UN expeditionary force is going to pull out in sixteen weeks. The opponent’s strategy strategy going forward is clear. Lay low until the powers-that-be pull out. Then it is back to business as usual.

Meanwhile, once feelings are identified and normalized, role playing is needed to help patients become comfortable with self-assertion or confrontation. “They may never have expressed a wish and almost never have said “no” to anyone. Yet if a patient has a successful experience in one of these situations (e.g., asking for and receiving a raise, confronting a spouse), the patient will have learned a new skill, discover some sense of control over the local environment, and likely feel better” (p. 164).

The IPT text and training repeatedly emphasize that “feelings are powerful, but not dangerous—and in fact, you need them [feelings] to decide whom you can trust. Expressing your feelings to another person may seem risky, but it provides a test of whether the other person is trustworthy or not. If you feel angry and voice it to another person, the other person has the chance either to apologize and change behavior, or to confirm that he or she is uncaring or untrustworthy” (pp. 194 – 195).

Agree – but there is a big “but.” The thing is that for some people feelings ARE dangerous if the feelings threaten to fragment the coherence and integrity of the sense of self. This is especially the case with survivors of trauma. There is it not just an over-feeling, but a feeling “I am gonna die!” One can dismiss this as a “personality disorder,” but I do not believe such dismissal would be fair or accurate. If subjected to strong enough feelings, just about anyone is capable of being shaken to their core. Therefore, methods are for strengthening the person’s self’s sense of stability and equilibrium in the face of strong feelings. Expanded distress tolerance? Expanded emotional regulation? Self-soothing? Working through? Exposure? Transmuting internalization? Suggestion? Encouragement? All of the above?

Having gotten in touch with emotions, patients can proceed to more usual IPT maneuvers, such as solving a role transition. As patients gain comfort with their feelings, they engage interpersonal situations with expanded competence, life feels safer, and they begin spontaneously—without IPT therapist encouragement—to face the situations and traumatic reminders they have been avoiding. In the vast majority of instances, the authors assume the patient is out of touch with his or her feelings. The therapy consists in invoking the feeling so that the patient can get in touch with it. But what about being over-whelmed by one’s feelings? Yes, one can also lose touch with one’s feelings if one is overwhelmed, but it is significantly different mode of losing touch. What about that?

We end on a positive note. IPT is demonstrably effective with borderline personality disorder, though the time-limited aspect is “finessed” by [apparently] doubling the number of sessions to distinguish between establishing trust with the therapist and actually doing the work.

We give the last word to the authors of this engaging, practical text: “The therapist presents BPD to the patient as a poorly named syndrome that has a significant depressive component. A major difference between MDD [major depressive disorder] and BPD [borderline personality disorder] is that while depressed patients often have difficulty expressing any anger, patients with BPD often do the same much of the time but then periodically explode with excessive anger, which reinforces their tendency to avoid expressing anger whenever possible. The goals of treatment are, as is usually the case in IPT, to link mood (including anger) to interpersonal situations, to find better ways of handling such situations, and to build better social supports and skills.” (p. 201).  

(c) Lou Agosta, PhD and the Chicago Empathy Project