Freeing therapy

There has never been anything like a properly-resourced public therapy service in this country. And the limited provision of years gone by is starting to seem positively wonderful as austerity measures cut this even further to the bone. The link between mental suffering – especially anxiety and depression – and the woes of austerity – insecurity, uncertainty, poverty – could not be clearer.

It was in this context that a number of us came together last year to set up the Free Psychotherapy Network. Like many therapists, I’ve always seen some people for low fees. This was a requirement of training – and rightly so, part of an ethos of social responsibility. But I have also found myself seeing people for nothing when even the little became too much. The first time this occurred, Martin, my client, was reluctant to accept my offer, but I reasoned with him – and myself – that he could easily come and see me at the hospital where I was then an honorary therapist. Or he could save himself the journey and continue to come to my home. I saw him for several years and his connection with me kept him alive.

Seeing people for free can be a dirty secret among therapists. so strong is the idea that paying a fee is somehow good for the client. I’ve never had a problem charging people for what I do, given it’s how I’ve chosen to make a living. But to say that money must change hands, however little, is to buy completely into the notion that we only value what we pay for.   Doesn’t this invalidate the public provision of therapy and counselling eg in hospitals and GP practices? Also, what’s the difference, say, when someone is paying a couple of pounds and nothing?

I’ve never experienced any difference in the attitudes of people I’ve been seeing, according to how much or how little they are paying. And, of course, when people’s circumstances change they have offered to pay.

Many organisations up and down the country provide low cost or free therapy, but it seemed to us that there was a role here, too, for individual practitioners.

Our network is a recognition of a harsh social and economic reality and a modest proposal for how many of us could make a difference in people’s lives. While most people find the support and understanding they need to live well in their everyday networks of friends, relatives, colleagues and community, many find themselves struggling with painful and debilitating experiences of anxiety, depression and self-doubt. All too often, people struggling with psychological insecurity are struggling also with financial and social insecurity. Everyone, it seems to me, should have the right to the kind of emotional help they need.

The FPN is very much in the tradition of the low cost or free provision offered throughout therapy’s history. Psychoanalytic clinics set up in Berlin and Vienna in the 1920s, involving people like Erich Fromm, Karen Horney and Anna Freud, offered help for children as well as adults. In Vienna, the radical therapist, Wilhelm Reich, and his colleagues would even travel in a van to suburbs and rural areas, announcing their visits in advance and speak to anyone who cared to come along about sexual concerns.

Offering our services for free is not about charity – and nothing to do with bogus ideas of the ‘big society’. It is rather an act of solidarity with people who find themselves in situations of emotional trouble and material struggle, a contribution to social justice.

At the moment we are a small, loose network, mainly in London but with supporters scattered around the country. We want very much to be a national network, encouraging and supporting one another, and invite people who share our ethos to get involved. Please look at our website for more on what we stand for and how to get involved –

Paul Gordon

Originally published in Therapy Today (April 2015), the magazine of the BACP.