The Heroic Client is wonderfully polemical – a fearless examination of contemporary medical approaches to mental illness and its treatment. The book targets the pharmaceutical industry and the psychoactive drugs it produces. It attacks the medical model and its tendency to define mental illness reductively in terms of ‘biochemical imbalance”. The authors are sceptical of approaches that stigmatise individuals and reify the causes of mental illness by applying biological models and questionable diagnoses - an approach that turns clients into passive recipients of behavioural treatments and tablets. The authors ask for clients to be cast in a different light - competent, resourceful, and resilient – with the agency and self-efficacy to find solutions and make positive changes.
The book begins with a chapter entitled, “Therapy at the Crossroads”, in which the authors warn of a situation developing in which counsellors and psychotherapists exclusively work for medical practitioners. In these circumstances the medical model becomes the only way of explaining mental illness, with the therapist as an adjunct to medication, a fixer of broken people. In chapter two the authors challenge the supremacy of the medical model, calling into question the evidence base on which it rests and suggesting other constructions of mental health and mental illness that include the social context and the personal history of the client.
At the heart of the book are three chapters that provide an alternative to the established diagnostic approach. In examining the client’s story for signs of pathology the medical model misses an alternative interpretation of the client’s experience, one in which the client endures or overcomes trauma and loss through the discovery and use of social networks and inner resources. The ‘heroic client’ has a different tale to tell once he or she is freed from the template imposed on them by pathologising and medicating mental health professionals.
To support the heroic client practitioners ensure their therapy is client directed (chapter three) and outcome informed (chapter four). In my favourite chapter, rich with case material, the book highlights the importance of identifying and exploring the client’s theory of change (chapter four). The authors refer to research carried out on the innovative hypnotherapist Milton Erickson in the 1980s. Nobody could quite understand how he worked out which intervention his clients needed for recovery to take place. Eventually the researchers realised that Erickson didn’t know either, but that his clients did. Erickson listened to his clients and from them he discovered what they needed in order for therapeutic change to take place.
The book contains a critical examination of psychoactive medication. The fact that so many children are being prescribed stimulants and anti-depressants ought to concern us all. The authors explain just how flimsy the evidence is supporting anti-depressants, with many proving hardly more effective than placebos. So, this book is a cri de coeur – urging therapists to stand against the drug companies and the medical model and to listen instead to clients and their heroic stories. A very good read!