Talking about your shrink isn't just for Woody Allen characters anymore. Once the kiss of death for a political career, announcing that you're in or about to enter therapy has actually become go-to damage-control strategy for public servants.
There's the local example, San Diego Mayor Bob Filner, subject of a cascade of sexual harassment allegations, including such debonair comportment as telling an aide she should come to work without underwear. Resisting calls to resign, Filner will seek therapy in "the hope of becoming a better person." It will take place over two weeks at an undisclosed clinic, after which, Filner said, "My focus will be on … being the best mayor I can be, and the best person I must be."
And in New York, revelations that mayoral candidate and former congressman Anthony Weiner's pornographic texting habit had continued well after the initial scandal forced him out of office two years ago had both the candidate and his wife fighting to hold on to the campaign by alluding to their hours on the couch.
"It took a lot of work and a whole lot of therapy to get to a place where I could forgive Anthony," said Weiner's wife, Huma Abedin.
Granted, these are New Yorkers who know their audience. A New York Times profile of the couple in April portrayed Weiner as a guy who talks about his shrink with all the nonchalance of someone talking about his dentist. "I start sentences with 'My therapist says …,'" Weiner told the reporter. It's a strategy that might backfire in Omaha or Dallas but could have a humanizing effect in a city whose residents pride themselves on having problems only professionals can solve.
When it comes to public figures, especially those as beholden to old-fashioned values as most politicians claim to be, there's a distinction between going to rehab for substance abuse or even sex addiction and plain old psychotherapy. Ironically, the former can be less freighted than the latter. Checking into a treatment center for a set amount of time is the kind of take-the-bull-by-the-horns move that potentially earns voters' forgiveness.
But even in the post-Tony Soprano era, the politician with a standing appointment for id and super-ego maintenance is likely to be regarded with suspicion, at the very least because what lawmaker worth his salt has time in his schedule for that much life examination? Isn't that reserved for morning jogs and prayer breakfasts? (Lesson: There's very little id and super-ego maintenance going on in Washington.)
Filner, and to some extent Weiner and Abedin, fall into the category of therapy-seekers with a mission. They're helping themselves so that they can continue to "help others" (translation: hold on to their careers). But amid the debate about their sincerity and, in Filner's case, whether years of creepiness can be cured in two weeks, at least one point seems to be getting ignored: Most therapy just isn't that effective.
For those lucky enough to find the right clinician (and dedicated enough to the process), psychotherapy can be life changing. But it's not like killing an infection with 10 days of antibiotics — it takes as long as it takes. Nor can all therapists can get beyond simplistic insights and basic hand holding. You don't "do therapy" and suddenly all is well, over and done.
Despite this, we've come to give therapy immediate, outsized credence, so much so that a politician can attempt to erase a record of bad deeds by simply saying he's signed up. And while it's good that the stigma around mental health counseling is lifting, what's less good is the way the kind of blind faith once reserved for medical doctors is now extended to just about any act of listening and dispensing advice. Catch even a minute of Dr. Phil administering his shticky tough love, or some radio therapist offering one-size-fits-all guidance, and it's clear how scary a prospect that is. And how foolish it is to let our leaders use it as a way of avoiding punishment or accountability.
Meanwhile, this current crop of politicians-in-treatment is about to encounter yet another problem. It's August, the month when shrinks traditionally go on vacation. Here's hoping Weiner and Abedin have some self-help books to tide them over. And that Filner packs some extra underwear.