I’ve heard a great deal of concerning messages around the process of counseling, and about counselors themselves. Stereotypes, misconceptions, and myths can be monstrous obstacles in achieving optimal mental health. I have tackled some of these with clients throughout different stages of their journey, but I have also heard some of these statements from family, friends, students, and even strangers. Although I can’t speak for all mental health clinicians, I hope that sharing my perspective of these misunderstandings will help to tear away at the stigma surrounding mental health.
All therapy is the same.
I’ve often heard people use this remark when noting a previous experience. I’ve already tried it. Why try it again if all therapy is the same? While there may be familiar elements such as reviewing information about your presenting concerns and discussing confidentiality, counseling can vary from one session to another, and certainly from one clinician to another. Even if two counselors were trained at the same institution or utilize the same theoretical approach, there are many variables that can cause these two contexts to be quite distinct. For example, you may feel more connected to one counselor over another. Along those lines, you may be different in terms of age, awareness, development etc. You are the main factor, and if you have changed, counseling won’t be the same.
I need to find someone just like me to help me.
Most clients want to feel heard. A common misconception is that you must find a provider who is similar to you in order achieve such benefits. In considering diversity of experiences, you may deem someone to be like you due to a superficial trait or arbitrarily selected characteristic and may miss the opportunity to build an alliance with a counselor who specializes in your niche need in counseling. Further, all counselors receive training to understand how to recognize their own biases and refrain from imposing their views[i]. Although you should feel comfortable with your counselor, try to avoid limiting your options for help by seeking your doppelgänger. An ethical counselor will be able to suspend their personal views and will encourage you to be the expert in teaching them about who you truly are.
Just talking about my problems won’t help.
At surface level, this is rather accurate. Yet underneath this statement is the misunderstanding that counseling is just talking. Counselors are trained in the art of language. With goals in mind, specialized clinical techniques help a clinician to foster intentional discussion around the surrounding concerns. If you are in counseling and it seems like you are just talking, you may not be able to see the carefully crafted conversation that has allowed you to discuss key elements of your presenting problem, brainstorm solutions, and create a plan. If it feels effortless, this may be due to an excellent therapeutic bond.
I already have a good support system, so counseling won’t help.
Social support is indeed an influential force on mental wellness. I spend a lot of time building social support systems for my clients because of this, however, our counseling doesn’t end once we do. If you have an excellent source of support, you are certainly lucky, and perhaps you may be one step ahead in your personal journey. However, your loved ones are not trained professionals. Counselors are specifically trained in the art of listening, problem-solving, and upholding a nonjudgmental stance throughout the process. Now perhaps you are reading this and you say, “Well, my loved one is a mental health therapist, so there!” Due to the difficulty in being unbiased and balanced, counselors are not ethically permitted to provide counseling to their loved ones. iiTherefore, although you may have a clinician in your life, they cannot and should not serve as your pseudo-counselor. Nevertheless, they can be an excellent resource for providing you a referral!
Counseling is for crazy people.
I cringed when I wrote this. This statement is riddled with stigma; however, I share it here because it is perhaps the most common misconception I hear regarding counseling. Our image of therapy is often skewed and our perception of whom warrants help often elicits distorted images of someone who lacks the capacity to function, tell the date and time, think clearly, hold a conversation, live independently, hold a job, be a loving parent or partner, and so on and so forth. It’s not that such individuals do not need help, it’s that individuals who can do all of the above still do. Our biased view of mental illness can cause our problems to go unchecked and may even help them to grow.
Counselors just tell people what to do.
I have noticed that people who believe this sentiment either despise or desire the idea of being commanded.
Although this may vary per expertise, method, and context, generally speaking, counseling is a collaborative process. A good counselor will often avoid advice-giving as they are obligated to foster and honor the autonomy of their clients. [ii] If you are the type to despise the idea of being commanded in counseling, hopefully this is a reassuring belief. However, if you are wishing for direction, try to keep an open mind and embrace a willingness to collaborate. A skilled practitioner will be able to foster your strengths and you will achieve the direction that you desire.
I’ll be forced to take medication.
There are a variety of mental health professionals and their respective jobs vary as well[iii]. You may discuss your concerns with a counselor or a psychiatrist, however, of the two, only a psychiatrist can prescribe medication. A counselor may refer to a psychiatrist to consider if medication management may be a helpful method in conjunction with counseling, but overall, mental health therapists believe in the power of counseling as their primary modality.
Shainna Ali is a counselor educator and owner of Integrated Counseling Solutions in Central Florida. Dr. Ali is passionate about highlighting the importance of mental health awareness, assessment, and care in living a happy and healthy life. Her areas of focus in research and practice include identity and culture, emotional intelligence, trauma, and creativity in counseling. For more information on Dr. Ali please visit IntegratedCounselingSolutions.com