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Now we are all therapists

"Therapy" is on offer everywhere. Shop signs and posters seduce us with its fashionable appeal. In one shopping precinct I noticed "Food for Therapy"

(health food); "Thairapy" (a hairdresser); "Therapy" (a designer clothes label) and even "Nail Therapy". On the underground and in magazines there are advertisements for a range of retail therapies including "Jean Therapy", "Shoe Therapy", and "Dress Therapy". Then there are web sites offering pet therapy, dolphin therapy, dance therapy, art therapy, colour therapy and music therapy.

There's even a rock group called "Therapy", and there are endless new age or quack therapies such as crystal therapy, magnetic therapy, inner changes therapy, and timeline therapy.

The window of my local FE college shop contains advertisements for dozens of courses, most of which are therapeutic: Craniosacral therapy; massage therapy; group therapy (for men with sexually transmitted diseases), and behaviour therapy (at the mother and toddler group). More formally there are on offer: advocacy training; counselling courses; "becoming a befriender" sessions and even "learning to listen" classes. Not a philosophy course or a real craft skill in sight, unless you count the "Basic IT" course for the IT-phobic. Is everyone where I live sick?

"Therapy" was what I thought people needed when they were troubled, disturbed, or mentally ill. Now, it seems that the word has changed its meaning entirely and represents a positive value. It means this "feels good" or "you will enjoy this". Therapy is like ice cream and yes, HAagen-Dazs is seen by its devotees as "the best therapy", while Ben and Jerry's promotes a "Chocolate Therapy" ice cream.

This change in the meaning of "therapy" seems strange if we consider that there is still a huge increase in therapists and therapeutic occupations.

If the changed meaning of "therapy" is just about enjoying yourself, who needs guidance and support? Yet it seems we need guidance more and more.

It may be that we could pig out dangerously on Chocolate Therapy or Retail Therapy and need help. If we do it is certainly there, for every shopaholic, chocoholic, workaholic - or any other kind of holic. Real therapists offering treatment even of this sort are the exception because the shift in meaning applies to "therapists" themselves. They are no longer there to "treat" you because you are sick. They are your friends and you can have fun with them. The old tension between "therapist" and "client"

has gone. You are simply good mates!

Our therapeutic friends are increasingly in numbers daily. One estimate suggested that there are a million-and-a-half therapeutic practitioners in Britain. Where do they all come from?

FE is always in the vanguard of new forms of training, and looking at the biographies of hundreds of therapists from the simple "feel better about yourself" type to the wacky "Reiki" therapists, Newcastle college seems to be a big player. Its recent Ofsted report said that it had thousands of students on life coaching and personal life coaching courses, offered in co-operation with a lifestyle guru.

The college mentions the Times as saying that she is one of those who "have got inside our minds to fill society's spiritual void". I find this sort of thing frightening, but people keep telling me I need therapy. But perhaps it is unfair to single out Newcastle, as these courses are available in colleges everywhere.

Just before the "summer of love" of 1967, Philip Rieff, in The Triumph of the Therapeutic, identified a possible "fundamental change of focus in the entire cast of our culture". He warned that any idea of happiness being a by-product of striving for a communal purpose could be replaced by the search for a private sense of well-being, with no end other than itself. He could not have imagined the extent of the change he envisaged. The rise in the number of therapeutic courses, and acceptance of therapy as normal, is just one expression of the fundamental change he identified.

Another is that therapeutic talk is now ubiquitous in every area of life.

In FE it is natural to talk of working with students in terms of "respect", "inclusion", "empowerment", "empathy", "openness", "availability", "emotional intelligence", "facilitation", and "listening".

Even "learning", once central to the acquisition of knowledge, now has a diminished and therapeutic sense. What does it mean to talk of lecturers and students being "learners" together, other than a disguised way of saying that they are in a therapeutic, client-patient relationship?

This cultural shift is damaging to everyone. The paradox of the search for well-being, like the suddenly popular desire to teach people to be "happy", is that, once we seek these things for their own sake, they melt into thin air. Seeking "happiness", "self-esteem" or "well-being" is an eternally frustrating process that leads people from one form of therapy to another.

While this undermines social life it is, in the short term, very good news for the employability of the FE therapeutic diaspora and for student recruitment in colleges! The increase in the number of formal therapists and courses is, in the end, not that important. Therapeutic language seems the natural discourse for lecturers and, when we talk this language, we have all become therapists, and what we do is not teaching any more, it's therapy.

Dennis Hayes is based at the Urban Learning Centre in East London

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