Because May is Mental Health Awareness month, now is a good time to examine and update our notions of mental health and counseling. Despite all of the progress psychology and medical science has made, there are many who still hold an outdated and misleading view of psychological disorders and their treatment. Common Misconceptions About Psychotherapy (verywellmind.com) To be clear from the get go: 1) Most of the people who have mental health issues are normal people. Their problems are generally caused by past trauma or by current stress or a combination of both. 2) Most counseling is a process by which clients can expand their awareness of how their past experiences and present have combined to create perceptional distortions and irrational emotional and behavioral reactions . The impact of this expanded awareness enables individuals to perceive life more accurately and respond to it in a more congruent way.
The lack of public understanding is problematic because it perpetuates stigma, confusion, unnecessary fears and avoidance of seeking help. Let me update and expand on two of the most common mental health myths.
1. People with psychological problems are not normal.
One such myth is the notion that those who have emotional problems are “different” from you and me. In fact, most people who struggle with emotional problems are quite normal. Their problems stems from their normal brains being overwhelmed by the combined forces of past trauma and high stress in the present.
Perhaps part of the problem stems from the medical model out of which modern psychiatry grew. The old medical perspective did not understand a person’s condition in terms of degree or continuum. Instead, it bifurcated a person’s condition into two groups: well or sick. Likewise, many have come to think about mental health as a matter of two exclusive categories i.e. sane or insane (psychotic) . The very fear and stigma of insanity has caused many folks to avoid seeking help or even talking about anything to do with psychological problems. In fact, while there are rare psychotic disorders, most of the folks who suffer from emotional difficulties are quite sane.
New brain research has shown emotional problems are much more fluid than previously recognized and that emotional trauma can disrupt neuro-pathways and interfere with our ability to be logical and use good judgment. These findings have implications for the way we understand and conceptualize psychological disorders. Rather than seeing mental illness in a static way or in either-or terms, a better way to conceptualize and measure mental health is to see it on a continuum which runs from complete rationality on one end of the spectrum to complete irrationality on the other. Mental health and illness, then, may be seen as relative and contextual notions wherein healthier means more rational and ill means less rational.
The advantage of this model is that it recognizes and expresses the important fact that folks who suffer from mental disorders are not a separate or inferior class of people. We all have moments when we may become unreasonable. The key distinction for determining mental health or illness is how much and for how long the irrationality is present and to what degree it interferes with the person’s (or another’s) life. Indeed, most of us live somewhere on the continuum where no one is completely rational or completely irrational. Mental health, understood this way, is winning the struggle to be reasonable and resisting the pull of irrationality.
2. Mental Health Counseling is a Mysterious Process.
Another problem which plagues our understanding of mental health is our outdated views of counseling. Again dominated by Freudian images and terms , the process was seen as a mysterious journey into the frightening realm of the unconscious. In fact, most psychotherapy involves rationally examining our present thoughts and how trauma may have caused logical distortions in our thought process.
The actual process of therapy , rather than mucking around in the falsely understood or reified area of the unconscious, helps the individual connect the disconnected dots (trauma) of his life and to become more aware (more fully conscious) of how the past has corrupted the accuracy of his perceptions and judgment in the present. Connecting the dots of impactful but separated experiences allows the person to integrate his/her life into a meaningful whole. In other words , the ultimate goals of therapy are to :
1) Help a person overcome the impact of past trauma and current stress ;
2) Regain reasonable emotional reactions and behavioral responses to stress ; and,
3) Have a unified sense of meaning in his/her life.
The aim of Mental Health Awareness Month is to increase understanding and discussion as well as to reduce embarrassment, fear and the stigma concerning psychological health and its disorders. Mental health, when it is truly understood, is simply the capacity to respond reasonably to life’s challenges. Mental health counseling, then, is the process of exposing the irrational parts of our thinking and behavior and replacing them with thoughts and actions which are more reasonable. Integrating one’s life in this way makes it possible for a person to feel better , deal more effectively with his/her life’s challenges and to have a clearer understanding of his/her identity and purpose.
Rev. Michael Heath, LMHC , Fellow A.A.P.C. 5 2 2021