What didn’t I do? What did I miss? the mother silently despairs, as she surveys the circle of experts seated in her child’s therapist’s office. Why do we need all of this help?
Stomach churning, she slumps back, trying to disappear into the chintz loveseat behind her husband. The tears leak out as she wonders again: What did I do wrong?
How did her smart, beautiful, athletic and social daughter, blessed with every advantage in life, end up in crisis? And why will it take so many experts to help pull her out of it?
The assembly of experts includes a pediatric neurologist, a special-ed teacher, the social worker, the psychiatrist who diagnosed her daughter’s depression and oversees the meds, a marriage therapist who helps the parents develop and maintain a united, loving front (her daughter may be struggling, but she is still savvy enough to divide, conquer and manipulate her parents), and the psychotherapist in whose office everyone has gathered.
How familiar is this scene to you? Have you or one of your friends experienced something similar?
Hushed conversations across the North Shore imply that more kids and adults suffer psychological crises than ever. Why? Does all this talking about our problems with therapists really make it better? If so, where does one find the best professional(s) to help?
Dr. Sonny Cytrynbaum, associate director of the Center for Applied Psychological and Family Studies, the Family Institute at Northwestern University, has maintained a private psychotherapy practice for individuals, couples and families on the North Shore since he arrived in 1977.
“Psychology has evolved so that we now have treatment modalities that are likely to work,” explains Cytrynbaum, who also works as a professor at NU’s School of Education and Social Policy and the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences. He adds that people come to therapy because they are in pain, and they have reason to believe that therapy will help.
But they must overcome barriers before they enter a therapist’s office, he says.
“People perceive seeking help as some kind of moral or character flaw.” He tamps his pipe. “But that is just false. Seeking out and engaging in meaningful sustained help when you are in crisis and pain takes courage and commitment.” He pauses for emphasis. “That is the opposite of a character flaw.”
My mother grew up on an Indiana farm, attending a Quaker church. She never heard of psychotherapy. Her family and friends never talked about their troubles. They worked long, rigorous hours outdoors and quietly meditated when they felt troubled. Mom claims that she never even heard the word “stress” until she was 30 and married to a man growing a successful business in Indianapolis.
I wasn’t aware of psychotherapy growing up either. I was too busy playing with my siblings and the kids in the neighborhood to pay attention to pain. We didn’t dwell on or discuss our problems; we skipped around them and found something fun to do.
But my children and their friends started hearing about therapy before they learned to read. It’s imbued in our community’s psyche. Are we more successful and mentally healthier on the North Shore because so many fine therapeutic resources are available? Or do we need so much therapy because we’ve actually created an unhealthy culture here?
Does our community’s affluence make it better for our families, or does the “affluenza” only breed dysfunction? Would our wealth be better spent on helping the less fortunate, rather then spending it on so much introspection? What is a healthy balance between these options?
My children always describe their school service and church mission trips as some of their most rewarding life experiences. (Of course, they complained mightily about the imposition on their time before they left.) But the chance to honestly explore their inner selves with a compassionate, nonjudgmental therapist has also helped them develop, when the need arose. During difficult times, it’s helped me grow as an adult, too.
One thing is certain. For better or for worse, therapy flourishes in the most affluent zip codes.
Which means there’s a therapist for every issue and every budget. Make It Better has an online resource for the North Shore that will allow the community to discuss these complex issues and find the most appropriate therapist when need arises. Excellent help can also be found at your local hospital or police station, or one of the following:
Dr. Sonny Cytrynbaum
Family Institute of Northwestern University