History of Counselling & Psychotherapy

Although psychological therapies trace their history back to the contributions of Freud, many modern approaches to counselling and psychotherapy are now much more firmly grounded in other bodies of thought.

Freud and His Successors

Modern psychological therapies trace their history back to the work of Sigmund Freud in Vienna in the 1880s. Trained as a neurologist, Freud entered private practice in 1886 and by 1896 had developed a method of working with hysterical patients which he called ‘psychoanalysis’. Others such as Alfred Adler, Snador Ferenczi, Karl Abraham and Otto Rank were also analysed by Freud and had brief apprentice-type training from him before becoming psychoanalysts in their own right.

In the early 1900s, Ernest Jones and A.A. Brill, from the UK and US respectively, visited Freud in Vienna and returned to their own countries to promote Freud’s methods; Freud himself began a lecture tour of North America in 1909. Gradually many such as Ferenczi, Adler, Rank, Stekel and Reich began to develop their own theories and approaches, which sometimes differed markedly from Freud’s. Jung in particular, a close collaborator of Freud’s from 1907-1913 who was in some sense ‘groomed’ as Freud’s intellectual successor, eventually split from Freud and pursued the development of his own school of analytical psychology, drawing heavily on both Freud’s and Adler’s ideas. All these immediate descendants of Freud’s approach are characterized by a focus on the dynamics of the relationships between different parts of the psyche and the external world; thus the term ‘psychodynamics’.

A separate strand of psychological therapies developed later under the influence of psychology and learning theory and leading thinkers such as B.F. Skinner. Rejecting the notion of ‘hidden’ aspects of the psyche which cannot be examined empirically (such as Freud’s rendition of the ‘unconscious’), practitioners in the behavioural tradition began to focus on what could actually be observed in the outside world.

Finally, under the influence of Adler and Rank, a ‘third way’ was pioneered by the US psychologist Carl Rogers. Originally called ‘client-centred’ and later ‘person-centred’, Rogers’s approach focuses on the experience of the person, neither adopting elaborate and empirically untestable theoretical constructs of the type common in psychodynamic traditions, nor neglecting the internal world of the client in the way of early behaviourists. Other approaches also developed under what came to be called the ‘humanistic’ branch of psychotherapy, including Gestalt therapy and the psychodrama of J.L. Moreno. The figure below illustrates some of the historical links between these three main strands which developed from Freud’s original contributions.

Three strands of development in the history of counselling and psychotherapy

The Medical vs. Non-Medical Split

Freud strongly supported the idea of lay analysts without medical training, and he analysed several lay people who later went on to become leading psychoanalysts, including Oskar Pfister, Otto Rank and his own daughter Anna Freud. He published two staunch defenses of lay analysis in 1926 and 1927, arguing that medicine and the practice of analysis were two different things. When Ernest Jones brought psychoanalysis to the UK in 1913, he followed Freud’s preferences in this area, and the tradition of lay involvement continues to this day in the UK, where most psychoanalysts, psychotherapists and counsellors have a lay background.

In the US, however, Freud’s analysand A.A. Brill insisted that analysts should be medically qualified — even though there were already many lay analysts practising in the US who, like Brill, had trained with Freud in Vienna. Brill prevailed, however: in 1926 the state of New York made lay analysis illegal, and shortly thereafter the American Medical Association warned its members not to cooperate with lay analysts. To this day, almost all US psychoanalysts are medically qualified, and counsellors typically study psychology as undergraduates before becoming counsellors.

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The Counselling vs. Psychotherapy Divide

It was largely in response to the US prejudice against lay therapists that Carl Rogers adopted the word ‘counseling’, originally used by social activist Frank Parsons in 1908. As a psychologist, Rogers was not originally permitted by the psychiatry profession to call himself a ‘psychotherapist’. Ironically, Rogers himself became renowned as one of the most influential empirical scientists in the fields of psychology and psychiatry, introducing rigorous scientific methods to psychology and psychotherapy that psychoanalysts themselves had long resisted (and, in the view of many, still largely resist today). He became a joint Professor in the Departments of Psychology and Psychiatry at the University of Wisconsin as well as Head of the Psychotherapy Research Section of the Wisconsin Psychiatric Institute.

In the field as it now stands, the argument as to whether counselling differs significantly from psychotherapy is largely academic. Those from psychodynamic traditions sometimes equate ‘psychoanalysis’ and ‘psychotherapy’ — suggesting that only psychoanalysts are really psychotherapists — but this view is not common anywhere else. Others use ‘psychotherapy’ to refer to longer-term work (even though some psychotherapists offer brief therapy) and ‘counselling’ to refer to shorter term work (even though some counsellors may work with clients for years). The two terms are commonly used interchangeably in the US, with the obvious exception of ‘guidance counseling’, which is often provided in educational settings and focuses on career and social issues.

Counselling and Psychotherapy Today

Modern counselling and psychotherapy have benefited tremendously from the empirical tradition which was given such impetus by Carl Rogers, even though the research agendas of psychology and counselling have diverged greatly over the last half century. Additional work in cognitive psychology, learning theory and behaviour has informed many therapeutic approaches. The richness of the bodies of both empirical and theoretical work which are now available, coupled with the raw complexity of human beings, has led to a profusion of different approaches to the field. By some accounts, the different strands of counselling and psychotherapy now number in the hundreds. Mainstream approaches, however, are much fewer in number, and over time it is likely that many of the less well-grounded schools of thought will fade away, while more new ones will emerge to take their place. While the main approaches continue to develop, and others appear and then fade away, clients are left to choose for themselves what might be best for them. Hopefully the information provided by this site (incomplete though it very definitely is!) will be of some help in this process.

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