December 30, 2011

Psychotherapy for Normal People: Therapy Poll Results

Last month, a new friend told me about his therapy experience over dinner. I'm used to people telling me about their therapy, but the next day, my friend sent me a text to remind me to keep our conversation confidential. That got me wondering about how people perceive therapy--is seeing a mental health professional still stigmatized, or is psychotherapy accepted as normal these days? To find out, I decided to take a poll to see how many of my peers had been to therapy (and were willing to admit it).

Method: I posted the following as my Facebook status two or three times in one week: "Informal research project: Have you ever been in family, group, or individual therapy? Send me an email to say yes or no." The response rate was low (n = 8) so I created a Facebook event and invited all of my Facebook friends (n = 154). I sent two reminder emails within the following month.

Participants: I received 48 responses, 60% from women (n = 29) and 40% from men (n = 19); participants ranged in age from 25 to 48 years. Sixty-three percent of respondents lived in Montreal at the time of the poll (although a few others were former Montrealers), and 83% were Anglophone. Seventy-nine percent of respondents were white and urban, with post-secondary education; the other 21% were two of those three things.

Results: Fifty-eight percent of respondents (n = 28) reported that they had been to therapy. Most of those in the affirmative camp responded with a simple yes, but some further confided that they had sought therapy subsequent to a break-up or other crisis, had gone to couples therapy with their partner or former partner, or had been sent to therapy as a child during their parents' divorce. Interestingly, more than a few respondents in the no camp added that they maybe should seek therapy, or that they would like to.

The gender statistics revealed little. Of the respondents who said yes, 58% were women and 42% were men. Of those who said no, 65% were women and 35% were men. These numbers reflect the overall gender ratio in the sample of respondents, and don't suggest that one gender is more likely than the other to have been to therapy. Of the female respondents, 55% said yes and 45% said no. Of male respondents, 63% said yes and 37% said no. These numbers reflect the overall proportion of yes and no responses, and don't seem to suggest anything about gender and psychotherapy. 

Discussion: Nearly 60% of respondents acknowledged having gone to therapy at some point in their life. Although this seems like a pretty straightforward result, it's possible that the stats were falsely inflated by selection bias (i.e., I'm friends with the kind of people who go to therapy) and/or by self-selection bias (i.e., people with therapy experience were more likely to respond). Alternatively, it's possible that the actual statistics of therapy attendance are much higher, but that people who seek therapy don't want to admit to it, even anonymously (i.e., maybe every single one of the 106 non-respondents has been to therapy!). I also don't know whether or not the results indicate that it's common among my peers to seek therapy, because I don't know how many respondents independently sought psychotherapy in adulthood, and how many were sent to a therapist during their childhood. I wish I had been more specific with my question!

Conclusion: Even with the identified limitations to the research design, I feel comfortable concluding that psychotherapy is statistically normal among youngish white, urban, educated adults. I hope that this finding demonstrates that therapy is for normal people, and contributes to the destigmatization of psychotherapy.

What do you think? Are you surprised? Are you convinced?


  1. As a life coach, these numbers interest me. I have a few questions and comments.

    How do you interpret the non-response of 106 of your facebook friends? Which camp do they fit in and in what proportions?

    While I appreciate your oft-mentioned statements on the unscientific nature of this experiment and its limitations, I question the conclusion that you drew. That being said, I am adding meaning to "statistically normal" as I understand it, not as a statistics term. (I'm sure we covered this in Quantitative Methods in CEGEP but that was loooooong ago.) My fear is that the conclusion you drew is more self-serving (promotion or support for your field) than it is indicative of the actual results, where only 18% of your facebook friends admitted openly that they have been to therapy, and in some of those cases, not by their own choice.

    What is the threshold needed to make the declaration that you made? What results are needed to help destigmatize psychotherapy? Some might say that 18% is large enough, given that some people who hadn't been to therapy are considering it, and that some of your non-responsive facebook friends might have been to therapy.

    Interesting experiment, though, Sarah. Happy New Year and continued success.

  2. It is interesting to learn the portion of respondents who answered yes to having had psychotherapy, but the portion is not a major indicator of whether psychotherapy is normal or statistically normal.

    There are all kinds of things people choose or need or have done to them that are normal even though the percentage involved is small. On the other hand, a need or practice or behaviour could be normal or statistically normal even if stigmatized in some or many circles.

    I am probably garbling a distinction between "normal" and "statistically normal" here. And it is true the greater numbers doing something can lead to greater general acceptance vs. stigmatization.

    But the number or portion of people involved does not determine normal. The commentor above asks for a threshold, but I don't think there is such a thing.

    Somebody's mom

  3. Going to therapy may be as normal as suffering a crisis at some point(s) in life, but that doesn't mean one wants to go around sharing that crisis with everyone around. I think that's why therapy can still be "stigmatized" (I'm not convinced it's the right word) and normal at the same time.

  4. Dear "Somebody's mom" -

    My comment about a threshold was rhetorical, not a request. It was more a statement on the number that one needs to see in order to declare something valid, normal, "statistically normal." I agree that normality and stigma are not necessarily related, or shouldn't be in all cases. You sum up my position well when you say "interesting...but not a major indicator."

    Happy New Year. Make 2012 amazing!

  5. I just thought of a practical application/question for this. Marketing through social media for psychologists: can it be successful? Let's say you want to set up a Facebook page to promote your services. You need people to Like your page to get the viral thing going, but if people aren't ready to admit they use your services... how do you make the most of word of mouth promotion?