I like psychotherapy. I also like Howard Stern. Although his radio show is a shell of what it used to be — airing only 3 days a week and irregularly at that — Stern remains a self-aggrandizing enigma.
On one hand, he’s infamous for his rowdy humor, endless fascination with his bowel movements, and juvenile bits, especially earlier in his career. But on the other, as he’s grown older (he’s now 61), he’s also matured and slowed down a bit. He has been a regular user of transcendental meditation (TM), long before mindfulness became the latest fad. And he’s also been a loyal psychotherapy-goer for decades, attending sessions a mere three times a week (from a high of four).
But whenever Stern talks about psychotherapy on his radio show, I tense up. Because while well-meaning, he inevitably says things about psychotherapy that are probably only true in his world… but not for the rest of us.
5 Things We Can Learn About Psychotherapy From Howard Stern
1. Howard is seemingly a credential snob.
One of the first questions Stern asks a guest when he learns that they too are in therapy is what kind of clinician they are seeing — a psychiatrist, psychologist, or some kind of other mental health professional? Stern sees a psychiatrist, one who has been trained in psychoanalysis, the specific kind of psychotherapy Stern enjoys.
But the degree your professional has probably matters a lot less than Stern and others believe. There remains little research demonstrating that one degree results in better patient outcomes than another. So while that Ph.D. or M.D. has had more education, that additional education may or may not benefit you as a patient.
What seems to matter more than the specific credentials of your therapist is the breadth and depth of experience they’ve had in dealing with your specific kind of problem. Find one who is well-versed in your problem and you’re more likely to enjoy a positive outcome more quickly, no matter what their degree.
2. Howard suggests everyone should be in therapy, because everyone benefits from it.
I’m not sure too many therapists would disagree with this, but I will. Some people need psychotherapy some of the time. While psychotherapy may indeed help open up insights into behaviors or emotional responses, insight alone is rarely enough to do much good on its own. Stern has endless insight into his and others’ behaviors; yet he seems nearly as neurotic and obsessive as he was twenty years ago.
Instead, most people try psychotherapy when problems arise in their life that they can’t seem to fix on their own. Whether is a clinical diagnosis like major depression, bipolar disorder, or attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), or a problem with a relationship or at work, people seem to benefit most from psychotherapy when it is goal- or solution-focused.
Not everyone benefits from psychotherapy, of course. There are countless stories of people being harmed by it, so it does carry a risk as well (just like any treatment).
3. Howard appears to believe the more therapy, the better.
Everyone should be seeing their therapist or psychoanalyst 3, 4 or 5 times a week, according to Stern. There’s little research to indicate that seeing a therapist this often is beneficial for the patient, or results in better — or quicker — patient outcomes. Most people see their therapist once a week, and that seems to be a good frequency.
More frequent sessions are more likely to reinforce a dependence on the therapist and the relationship with them — one that can even become unhealthy for some (see below).
4. Howard seems to believe that the therapist is there as your support system, not necessarily as an agent of helping you change.
As I’ve said, psychotherapy seems to work best for most people who try it when they apply it directly to a problem in their life. While psychoanalysis has some research support and surely has helped countless numbers of people, it tends to foster a dependence on the analyst (how could it not? — you see the analyst more than you see virtually anyone else in your life). In my opinion, this dependence can become unhealthy fairly readily.
Whenever his analyst is on vacation (or Stern takes a vacation), listeners tend to hear a story from Stern about how difficult it is to be away from his analyst. He says that only his analyst really understands him and can help calm him down when he’s anxious or upset about something. To me, these are perhaps indicators of an unhealthy relationship with one’s therapist — not something that should be encouraged in others.1
5. Howard appears to believe that his type of therapy — psychoanalysis — is the best.
I’m not sure Stern has ever come out and said this, but it’s clear in the way that he talks about his experiences with psychoanalysis (or psychodynamic therapy) that he believes it is the thing everyone should be doing. The problem with this is that there’s a whole lot of research that suggests more modern forms of therapy work better, more quickly, and are less expensive.
However, psychoanalysis is expensive, time-consuming (most analysts want to see you 4 or 5 times a week), and has the least research backing its effectiveness.2 There’s a reason folks like Woody Allen and Howard Stern go to analysis — they can afford it, both in time and money.
Which is just fine for them. But for most people, the research suggests there are many other forms of psychotherapy — cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT), mindfulness-based cognitive therapy (MBCT), dialectical behavior therapy (DBT), etc. — that are more effective, less expensive, and only require a session per week to achieve their time-limited (generally, anywhere from 6 to 18 months) results.