Does Britain have an emerging 'therapy culture', characterised by increasing recourse to formal emotional support, such as counselling and self-help groups? If not, how do people address difficulties in their emotional lives? Despite academic theorising about the 'rise of therapy culture' and the increasing policy attention to matters of mental well-being, very little empirical information is available in this area. The aim of this study is to provide theoretically-informed, policy-relevant, rigorous empirical data on public views and experiences of formal and informal emotional support and the role of 'emotions talk' in relation to each.
The research will use the British Social Attitudes (BSA) survey to measure views and experiences of emotional support across the population as a whole and map variations across different sub-groups. The survey will also be used to identify individuals with particular beliefs or experiences to take part in detailed qualitative follow-up interviews. These will explore issues such as: the role and importance of talking relative to other forms of support; the basis on which people feel able to place 'emotional trust' in others; and how views and experiences of emotional support may have changed over time, both for individuals and for society more generally.
Are people in the UK increasingly at ease with emotional disclosure, reliant on professional forms of emotional support and likely to see themselves as emotionally vulnerable? If not, how do people cope with difficulties in their emotional lives? How do people feel about talking abouttheir emotions? What do people do other than talk? What might this mean for policies aimed at improving mental wellbeing? These are some of the questions addressed by this study of contemporary views and experiences of emotional support, with a particular focus on the role and significance of talk.
The study found that most people in the UK are now at ease with the idea of talking about their feelings, providing some support for claims that we are increasingly attuned to ‘therapeutic’ precepts. But despite claims about the pervasiveness of the professionalisation of our emotional lives, only a small minority have actually sought such formal support in the face of emotional difficulties. While availability and access issues are relevant here, there remains a deep-rooted cultural ambivalence towards the idea of professional emotional support in all but the most extreme circumstances. To this extent, the study rejects claims that everyday problems and losses – divorces, miscarriages, debt - are now automatically incorporated into the therapeutic and that we define ourselves in terms of vulnerabilities. The study also unpacks who people turn to at difficult times, embeds these supports in social context, and focuses on what it is that passes between people that is experienced as supportive. The study calls for a greater understanding of the non talk based aspect of this support and the extent to which it can be replicated professionally.