A common reason, in my experience, why people don’t get taken on for therapy (or are discharged prematurely) when they are referred to a therapist is that they are deemed to be ‘lacking in motivation’. The concept of ‘being motivated’ is something I’ve thought quite a lot about because when I’m depressed I have very little motivation to get out of bed. So what is meant when people who are depressed are lacking in motivation to undertake therapy? Why should we think more about it?
To get taken on for a talking therapy, you have to jump through quite a few different hoops, several of which you may not realize are actually there:
- First you have to recognize that you might actually need some help. That’s a pretty major step. Stigma in our community makes it difficult for many people to come forwards and identify themselves as having a mental health problem. In some minority communities, simply doing this can damage your sister or brother’s marriage prospects.
- Then you need to be able to access the system, through your GP or by self-referral. That assumes that you can leave your house (many people with disabilities cannot) and negotiate the various other barriers to getting a referral including feeling able to talk to your GP, or using the telephone to refer yourself. All these can be doubly difficult if you don’t speak English. Information about services isn’t always available in other languages. Talking to people on the telephone can be difficult if you are very anxious.
- •Next you have to understand what it is that you are being referred to. You many have no idea that you are expected to turn up at the same time every week for several weeks. You may be a single parent, who lacks reliable childcare. If out of hours appointments aren’t available you may have to tell your boss you need the time off and why. Not everyone has control over how they spend their day like most professionals do.
- You may have a great deal of emotional turmoil in your life- relationships in crisis, money problems, ill-health in your family. You are not sure how you can commit to something you don’t really understand and how this can be a priority. No-one may yet have explained how therapy is supposed to help you.
- A letter arrives. It takes you a while to open it because you haven’t been opening the post. It’s all bills anyway, and seeing them just gets you more upset. You’ve been finding it harder and harder to get going in the morning. The letter says you have to ‘opt in’ to therapy, by a certain date. You tear off the slip and send it back. Just in time.
- When the assessment appointment finally comes after several weeks or months, you have to cancel because your child is seriously ill. The service tells you that you can only cancel twice then you will go to the bottom of the waiting list again. You try and leave another message but only get the answering machine. Repeatedly. You begin to lose hope. Things are getting worse and you seem to have even less energy than before. You have started to feel that life isn’t worth living anyway.
- You finally get to see the therapist who asks quite a few questions, but you still aren’t entirely sure what you are supposed to do, or how this is supposed to help you. You tell her that you are taking tablets, which have helped a bit, but your doctor hasn’t reviewed them because he is waiting to hear what the therapist thinks. She tells you that this is nothing to do with her but a question for your doctor. She asks to see you again before making a decision. She says there will be six-month wait anyway to see somebody. You start to think ‘what’s the point?’ you are feeling increasingly hopeless.
- The evening before you are due to see her, your husband comes home to say he has been made redundant and the two of you spend the evening wondering how you are ever going to cope. The therapist has sent a text to remind you of your appointment but it’s the furthest thing from your mind at the moment. You forget to go.
- Two weeks later you get a letter offering you one more appointment. If you don’t attend you will be discharged and they will assume you no longer want to come. That last part of the sentence worries you, because you know you really need help now. You are losing weight, you have no energy any more and the future looks bleak. You put the letter in the bin.
The therapist writes to your doctor and says you don’t seem motivated to attend at the moment, and sends you a copy.
There are many things that can contribute to a perceived ‘lack of motivation’. Not being willing to attend regularly (because of what that means in terms of who you have to tell and negotiate with); not able to understand what therapy is about and your role in it (because no-one has still really explained it); not prioritizing therapy because your life is in turmoil (a difficult ask for people who live life on the edge of an economic abyss) or simply feeling so hopeless and lacking in energy that you don’t manage to get there ( symptoms of severe depression).
The responsibility has been put back onto you. The therapist didn’t seem to want to talk about the problems you were facing in your life and your money difficulties. Only what you thought and felt about them. They didn’t address how ambivalent you feel about the whole enterprise or try to really engage you in a way you could respond to. They didn’t seem to understand how difficult you found it to make any decisions at all, never mind commit to ‘therapy’ and when you talked about how you had begun to think of harming yourself they did seem concerned but didn’t seem to know what to say.
You may think this tale is an exaggeration, but it is simply a reflection of what service users have told me many times about their experiences.
Once upon a time you had to be ‘Young, Attractive, Verbal, Intelligent and Successful’ to get into therapy. Now, above all, you have to be motivated. Have things changed?
My new book: ‘The Other Side of Silence: A Psychiatrist’s Memoir of Depression,’ is available now, and describes my own experiences of therapy.