By Eliska Counce, TSB Columnist
So, when you tell folks you’re a mental health counselor, there are a couple of standard responses. Many of these involve a whispered story about a relative or friend. More interesting reactions include the immediate divulgence of very personal details in order to ask for advice there on the spot (I’ll never forget being pressed for counsel in my beauty shop while adorned in a plastic cape and foil). I’m sure others in different professions have similar experiences with friends, relatives, and even strangers who would like to access services during, say, a dinner party. I picture a heart surgeon saying to his cousin, “Sounds like the appendix…move aside the spaghetti, lie down, and I’ll just use this butter knife…”
There are definitely some preconceived ideas about us headshrinkers. I am reminded of Homer Simpson as marriage counselor, complete with a sweater with leather elbow patches, reading glasses, and a water white noise machine, saying, “No one is wrong here…until I say so.”
Frequently, reaction to the answer to the “What do you do?” question is the look of disgust. They’re checking me for Birkenstocks, or…is that a whiff of patchouli in the air? Perhaps my advice will be “Tune in, turn on, and drop out.” After all, didn’t George Will write a scathing opinion piece for The Washington Post in April 2005 (“Have a Nice Day…Or Else”) accusing the left of commandeering the mental health industry? Isn’t Will declaring that anyone interested in sharing emotional difficulties with a paid professional is clearly lacking some coping skill? Aren’t therapists out to pathologize the nation? Aren’t counselors the ones who have decided self-esteem is more important than self-reliance? And worst of all…aren’t shrinks all pinko liberals?
Will also cites Christina Hoff Sommers, author of “One Nation under Therapy,” in his assault on the mental health profession. According to Hoff Sommers, therapists are conspiring to distribute aromatherapy candles and foot massages. Therapists appeal to egos, pathologize normal human reactions, and make clinical mountains out of human molehills. Will links “liberals” and the “caring professions” as if I was issued my ACLU card with my license.
I was trained at one of the top counseling education institutions in the United States: The University of North Texas. At all times during my training, it was made clear: the impetus is on us, as counselors, to encourage independent functioning in the client. Fostering dependence on the counselor is highly unethical. True, “licensed and credentialed” and “competent” are not always one and the same. However, a competent counselor knows that you have the innate ability to care for yourself given the right environment and encourages self-reliance and taking accountability for one’s actions. If I do my job well, you don’t need me any more.
This is hardly encouragement to stay in therapy for years. In fact, if you have been in a relationship with a counselor for over a year and there has been little or no change, you seriously need to take a look at the quality of therapy you’ve been paying for. I urge you to take advantage of free consultations in order to screen your counselor options in order to learn more about their training, modalities, and techniques used. How will you know when you have achieved what you set out to get in counseling?
George Bernard Shaw once wrote that he could not trust someone who benefits from his sickness to heal him (he had similar feelings for physicians that Will has for the mental health profession). However, counselors do not have a professional stake in your being too fragile to care for yourself any more than your medical doctor would prefer you catch a nasty virus every other month so he can bill you. Rather, the media often gives information about mental health symptoms that is at best unreliable and at worst misleading (the pharmaceutical companies definitely have a stake in your continuing to purchase that Prozac!). Most unfortunately, labeling is also made necessary by managed care companies who insist on a diagnosis in order to pay for services.
Hiring a professional to provide you service, contrary to the beliefs of Will and Hoff Sommers, is not a way to duck responsibility or an admittance of personal failure. Contacting a counselor, actually, is the first step in taking accountability for oneself and one’s actions: key and necessary in meeting the goals of a successful counseling experience.
Dis-ease is not disease. In fact, suffering is one way to achieve great meaning. Sadly, families are geographically more distant these days, and face time with friends and neighbors has been jettisoned for instant messaging, cell phones, and emails. Counselors are filling a support void for people with limited help in their network. Good relationships have been proven to lengthen life, even if you pay for the privilege.
So, if you’re afraid you might be kicked out of your HOA for admitting it’s helpful to have a paid professional with you along a difficult road, take heart. You’d hire a professional to do your plumbing, wouldn’t you? You wouldn’t want your best friend performing heart surgery on you or your bus driver preparing your tax statement. You hire competent professionals in order to make sure the job is done right.
A good therapist will give you that kick in the pants, albeit in the most therapeutic of fashions, when appropriate. A good therapist knows the difference between generosity and duty: I’m generous to give my kid chocolate cake for breakfast everyday. He’ll love me and keep coming on time for breakfast. I am generous to a client when I collude with him to excuse his behavior in order to stroke his self-esteem. Sure, it’s much easier to be generous than to do your duty of making sure they get what’s good for them.
But it’s whole-wheat waffles and milk, because I care enough. And by accessing competent professionals, you’ll get counselors who can provide an environment conducive to you finding your way back to optimum health, not a label of disorder. It’s solid food for the psyche, too, which is clearly linked to physical health. And you don’t have to hug even so much as a small shrubbery. If you don’t have access to insurance, there is a free clinic at McKinney’s Community Lifeline Center…check us out at communitylifeline.org. Take a chance. We just might make this world a better place.