Mental health counseling, or therapy, is the practice of assisting people in addressing emotional, psychological and relational problems. A few years ago a friend gave me a plaque to put in my office that said “Even My Therapist Says Its Your Fault!”. Haha. It’s a joke of course, but it does bring up some important issues about the mental health profession. The major question we should ask is this: Is therapy actually helpful? Is the mental health profession creating a culture of victimhood, or are people actually getting help in overcoming trauma, healing relationships, and improving their well-being? Some believe that we are falling under the influence of “therapism” in our country. Christina Hoff Sommers and Sally Satel, authors of “One Nation Under Therapy”, assert that an over-focus on mental health can create a belief that we all have insurmountable issues that leave us chronically crippled and incapable of functioning without the help of a therapist. They state:
“Therapism extols openness, emotional self-absorption, and the sharing of feelings. It encompasses the assumption that vulnerability rather than strength characterizes the American psyche and that suffering is a pathology in need of a cure. Therapism assumes that a diffident, anguished, and emotionally apprehensive public requires a vast array of therapists, self-esteem educators, grief counsellors, work-shoppers, healers, and traumatologists to lead it though the trials of everyday life.”
We really do have problems, though. Let’s look at depression, for example. In the past 20 years there has been a 400% increase in the use of antidepressants among adult Americans. Is depression on the rise, or have pharmaceutical companies done outstanding marketing? Are people really depressed and anxious, or have they succumbed to the promotion of a pill? Taking this line of thought further, is there an increase in psychological problems or just more therapists out there convincing people they need help? Essentially, either mental health issues are on the rise, or perfectly functional people are being convinced that they have problems and need help. They are offered medication and recommended to attend counseling.
The answer is complicated and the best answer is “both” are true. Its not necessarily that depression is on the rise. Instead, our awareness of depression has increased. We are becoming more aware of mental health! Depression is not new. In 1854, Henry David Thoreau recognized that “Most men lead lives of quiet desperation.” Life can and will deal us blows for which the only normal response is to be depressed, fearful, sad, or some other unpleasant emotional state. Seeing a counselor for this is very similar to seeking medical care for an ailment that if left untreated would heal on its own. However, getting help for it speeds the healing and reduces the suffering. In the past several decades, technological advances have allowed us to solve critical health problems (vaccinations, antibiotics, advances in surgeries, etc.), and given us plentiful access to nutrition, clean water, and better education. We now have more time and resources to invest in our mental and emotional well-being than ever before. As Tony Robbins has pointed out, when we solve lower level problems, we step up to a higher quality of life where there are also higher level problems to solve.
So yes, therapy can be helpful. The word “counseling” implies that the counselor will give his or her counsel or advice. Is that advice and counsel going to encourage you to grow as an individual? It should. Is it going to challenge you? Yes it should. Counseling, or therapy, is hiring someone to help you change something in your life. Its not much different than hiring a physical therapist to treat an injury or physical limitation. Its also similar to hiring a personal trainer to help you increase your health and fitness. Healing and growth are the two general goals of therapy. It requires acting on the belief that you can heal and grow. It’s empowerment instead of enabling. Empowering is about giving clients tools that will help them become more functional and healthier mentally, emotionally, and socially. Enabling is giving someone what they need to stay dysfunctional and ineffective. What keeps people dysfunctional and ineffective are things like addictive substances, excuses, denial of reality, blaming behaviors, and encouraging a sense of helplessness.
Will mental health counseling help you? It depends. Are you willing to do the work involved in healing and becoming more functional? It takes courage, and your therapist needs to be courageous with you – a partner in solving your problems. They can’t wave a magic wand and make your life better, but they can walk alongside you and provide you with guidance, resources, and tools to help you reach your goals. Life is risky and challenging, and this is normal. Trauma is real, and many people have experienced terrible things. Disappointment is not trauma, it’s normal. Whether its healing from trauma, stress management, or relationship work; Nobody should have to deal with their problems all alone. Talking about problems is just the beginning. Confronting problems is also needed. Hope for a better life is important, and having a competent counselor can be extremely helpful.