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Is Psychotherapy Still Getting a Bad Rap?
I’ve been practicing as a licensed psychotherapist for the better part of the past two decades.
My office mates (also psychotherapists) and I recently had to search for new office space and I was stunned at how difficult it was to find property managers or owners who were willing to rent to us. Mind you, none of this unwillingness to sign a lease with us could have been due to our credit histories or ability to afford the various spaces that interested us. So, we began to assume it was due to our profession.
Of course, while it may be a case of selective attention, it does seem that reports of violence against mental health workers have been receiving more and more national attention over the course of the past few years. And it seems each new incident raises the debate about the potential danger posed by people with mental illness. But, we’re located in the San Francisco Bay Area, a region I thought of (at least until recently) as more open-minded and aware than most of the importance of mental and emotional health.
Has something changed? Have things gone backwards?
Being curious to get at the facts – which are not easy to come by – I was able to find some relatively outdated data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics from 2000 that shows “48 percent of all non-fatal occupational assaults and violent acts occurred in health care and social services.”
I also came across an even older Department of Justice survey for 1993 to 19996, which states “[t]he average annual rate for non-fatal violent crime for all occupations is 12.6 per 1,000 workers. The average rate for … mental health professionals, 68.2.”
While it’s obvious from those numbers that assaults against mental health professionals by their patients is a reality, it doesn’t seem that they’re widespread or rampant. After all, that’s less than 7%. And even if the numbers are higher today, it may be because these incidents are being reported more frequently, as opposed to being more numerous.
Regardless, the vast majority of patients (even among those who are seriously ill) are not violent, and the majority of patients who are violent are psychotic. This is why the most incidents of violence against mental healthcare professionals occur in high-risk settings, such as inpatient psychiatric facilities, as opposed to private practice settings such as mine.
However, while violent attacks on psychotherapists may be rare, they’ve likely caused apprehension both within and outside of the profession.
Now, all of this may or may not be the reason for our difficulty in locating new office space.
And, yes, psychotherapists likely encounter more anger than other professionals simply because therapy involves such an intimate relationship… a relationship in which strong emotions (including anger and affection) become more pronounced.
Clients can and do transfer many strong feelings and emotions to their therapists, and those feelings and emotions can include overwhelming anger or the desire to make someone feel as weak and helpless as they feel themselves.
But, this is all part of the incredibly valuable and important work we do to help people learn to acknowledge, understand, and express their emotions so they can better manage them and move forward in life with confidence and optimism!
So, with all that in mind, I’d like to try and dispel a couple of what I see as still far too common misconceptions about what I do as a psychotherapist and the vast majority of people who come to me for help…
Dispelling Some Myths
Before we get into dispelling some of the myths about professional counseling and psychotherapy that still seem surprisingly pervasive after all of these years, I’d like to make sure we’re on the same page by quickly defining psychotherapy.
Psychotherapy can incorporate numerous theoretical orientations and techniques, but at its heart it is a scientifically proven process to help people like you better understand your own thoughts, beliefs, and behaviors, and learn how you can choose more helpful, productive thoughts, beliefs, and behaviors to create the thriving relationships and life you desire. It is an investment you make in yourself and your own future sense of joy and fulfillment.
Hopefully, that definition alone dispels some misconceptions. But, let’s look at a few I still see and hear all too often…
- Therapy is only for people with serious mental health issues or who are “crazy.”
“Crazy” is stigmatizing term that should be discarded outright. It only keeps people from getting the help they need while offering nothing in terms of actual descriptive value.
That being said, while counseling and psychotherapy can be incredibly helpful for people with severe mental health issues, the vast majority of private practitioners like me help individuals with more moderate problems and concerns.
I tend to think of counseling and psychotherapy as one of the most effective ways to change how you think and feel and act. It’s something everyone can benefit from at one time or another – especially if you find you could use some help with any emotional, behavioral, or relationship issues – and can help you learn to better navigate whatever life throws your way.
- People only need therapy when they’re in a “bad” place.
Similar to the above, one does not need to be in a “bad” or “dangerous” place in order to seek the help of a professional counselor or therapist. In fact, many of my clients are happy, healthy, and high-functioning human beings who attend therapy sessions to better handle specific feelings or situations or simply to learn more about themselves, and become the best people they can be.
- People only need the help of a therapist when they’ve suffered a nervous breakdown or some similar serious event.
While it’s true that there usually is some catalyst that prompts people to seek out professional help, it need not be as severe as a nervous breakdown or psychotic break! Relationship tensions, a lack of balance, purpose, or fulfillment, and simply feeling overwhelmed are all common reasons people commonly come to me for help.
But, the real truth is no one needs a reason to go to therapy. Again, everyone can benefit from counseling or therapy at some point or another. And, often people choose to stay in therapy for a different reason than what initially led them through my door.
- Psychotherapy patients are on medications.
Given the lack of public awareness about the differences between a counselor, psychotherapist, psychologist, and psychiatrist, as well as our society’s preoccupation with quick fixes, I guess it isn’t too surprising that many people believe someone who’s in therapy is also on meds. However, little could be further from the truth.
Yes, some of my clients are taking medications, and medications can help relieve some mental health conditions. But, those of my clients who are on medications are relatively few in number. As a psychotherapist, I cannot prescribe medications (in most states, only a psychiatrist or medical doctor can do so). And any medications that are used are only to help a client gain enough stability and control to benefit from the much longer-lasting benefits of counseling and psychotherapy.
- People in therapy lack friends and a healthy support network.
This myth is not only incorrect, it’s the exact opposite of the truth. Therapy is not a replacement for friendships. In fact, other than verbal communication, the two relationships have next to nothing in common. Therapists are not friends. They are professionals who are specifically trained to help you better understand yourself and learn the skills necessary to create the relationships and life you desire. Many of my clients have great relationships with friends and family members and difficulties with work or achieving personal goals. Others may have a large support network but are having difficulties with their spouse or child.
Again, anyone can benefit from the professional help provided by a licensed counselor or psychotherapist at some point or another, no matter how big, small, intimate or supportive one’s personal network may be.
Unfortunately, many of these myths go far beyond making it difficult for my colleagues and I to find office space… They prevent people who truly need help from enjoying the positive, life-changing benefits that counseling and therapy can provide.
When all is said and done, you shouldn’t feel unnecessarily scared of, or sorry for, anyone who’s in therapy. You shouldn’t really have any emotional reaction to someone being in therapy whatsoever.
Whether you know it or not, a client of mine may be your spouse, your child, your boss, your colleague, or your best friend.
However, if you feel you must feel something about anyone who says they’re in therapy, feel proud. Feel grateful. The one thing all people who seek professional help from counselors and psychotherapists like me have in common is the courage to seek help when they need it and want to improve their relationships and their lives.
I hope this helps break down some common misconceptions about counseling and psychotherapy. Even if it helps just one person to better understand my profession and the valuable work I, and others like me, do every day, we’ll be one step closer to a healthier society that isn’t afraid to look for and ask for the help it needs.
I provide my services to the highest ethical standards and my relationships with my clients are strictly confidential. As such, I must inform you that the information provided in this website is offered for informational purposes only; it is not offered as and does not constitute professional advice. Replies to e-mail messages will be general in nature and will not form a therapist-client relationship. Be aware that the confidentiality of information sent over the Internet, including e-mail, may not be legally or otherwise protected or secure.