How I would try to help Ty Lawson

How I would try to help Ty Lawson


How I would try to help Ty Lawson

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After being booked on suspicion of DUI for the second time this calendar year, a Denver judge ruled last Friday that Ty Lawson must enter a residential treatment program for substance abuse. Given that Lawson’s first arrest for DUI happened while he was still a collegiate player at North Carolina in 2008, this would appear to be a problem that has been percolating for some time. The fact Lawson is headed to treatment is certainly not a bad thing. However, it also doesn’t guarantee a successful outcome.

As a psychologist, I have worked with many people over the years who have been court-referred for any number of reasons. The fact one is present for treatment, though, doesn’t mean that one is engaged.

There is an old joke in my field that goes something like this: How many therapists does it take to change a light bulb? One, but the light bulb has to want to change.


I know, an awful joke to be sure. But it speaks to a dominant idea about treatment, therapy, counseling, or whatever you would like to call it. If the person seeking council isn’t engaged, it’s not going to work.

This is certainly true, as I cannot make someone else change. However, part of my responsibility is to be able to engage in conversations with people, hopefully creative, often non-conventional, that assist in getting buy-in. If I were to simply say that I couldn’t work with court-referred individuals because they didn’t show up with intrinsic motivation, well, most sessions would be over before they ever truly began.

While I cannot speak to Lawson’s motivations as I have not talked to him directly about this, I can say that people in his position – famous, affluent, relatively young – can have very tricky relationships with the treatment process. Often these folks are being encouraged by lawyers, handlers, and others close to them to “rehabilitate your image.” This creates an interesting split because the image of the person is something that has been constructed after they became famous and doesn’t always jive with who the person actually knows him or herself to be. Said differently, an identity under the influence of fame ends up replacing someone’s more authentic or preferred identity.

It is worth noting that most comprehensive drug rehabilitation centers do more than just connect people to counselors even though that is an important part of the process. They also focus on physical health through activities like yoga, meditation, and nutritional consultation. Many centers also have a spiritual (not necessarily religious) component. When these centers are at their best, they address the whole person.

All that said, if the person arrives for treatment and is just going through the motions or “doing their time” as to be released in 30 days, history teaches me it’s unlikely to have the desired long-term impact.


While it is hard for me to describe exactly what I do in such a truncated space, what follows is an introduction to a few of the areas I would focus on most if Ty Lawson were a person seeking my council.

1. Relationship – Decades worth of research and stories confirm the importance of the relationship between therapist and counselor. Without this, it’s unlikely Ty and I would be able to do much work of consequence. It’s very hard to “manualize” a relationship. Each one I form with clients (or any people in the world) is somewhat different. Perhaps the words of my mentor and friend from New Zealand, and the co-creator of narrative therapy, David Epston, capture this best: “I’m trying to be a person. I’m not trying to play the role of a professional person.” The ability to accomplish this allows a certain authenticity to emerge in both people that is essential for the change process to initiate.

2. Find out what else is going on – Making assumptions prior to meeting a person is probably not advised in any relationship and this is certainly the case for someone seeking therapy. Just because Ty has been referred as a result of his relationship with alcohol doesn’t mean there aren’t other important relationships to explore. Sometimes feeling states like depression, anxiety, or panic can help along substance use. Traumatic experiences and substance abuse often find themselves intertwined. To assume alcohol is the only problem of note would be to miss potentially other large pieces of an important puzzle.

3. Creative questions – I once told a therapist friend of mine that I would pay a million for a brilliant question. Historically, therapists were taught to just listen and reflect. Increasingly, those ways of practicing are being abandoned for a more active form of treatment that acknowledges the co-creation that takes place between people, like a client and therapist, in conversation. Questions, asked well, create space for new or taken for granted knowledge to emerge. Also, rather than it being my knowledge that I am asking them to assimilate, they are creating their own knowledge and thereby are much more likely to find it palatable. A remarkable query asked at the right time can be transformational for a person. It can help people change their relationship with themselves or the world around them in a way that endures.


It’s always hard to know exactly what questions I might ask a person because so much is predicated on the conversation in the moment, but a few very basic questions I might ask Ty at one point or another in our work together could include:

– Are there parts of yourself that alcohol sometimes makes you blind to or are difficult to see? What are they?

– If alcohol were a less frequent visitor to your life, how would life look different?

– What is your relationship with fame? Is fame a good thing or a not so good thing?

– Has fame tried to steal other parts of your identity that you really value?

– How do you believe you would go about reclaiming these parts that fame has pocketed? Would alcohol be an ally is this reclamation or a hindrance?

The goal in my questions would not be to identify Ty as a problem, but rather, to start getting him to think about his relationships with the problems that are getting in the way of his life and preferred identity.

Good therapy works and has the ability to engage people who weren’t initially interested in doing so. Hopefully Ty has shown up in the Malibu treatment center ready to participate. If not, hopefully the people at the center find creative ways to connect with him and invite him onboard.

Dr. Travis Heath is a Licensed Psychologist in private practice and assistant professor of psychology at Metropolitan State University of Denver. He has presented and published his work internationally and is currently working on (and writing about) using rap music as a helpful friend in the therapeutic process with court-referred young people. He has also served as a consultant in the NBA.

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