Counselling and Psychotherapy are powerful tools for personal and social change.
They enable us to resolve emotional issues that are preventing us from being happy with ourselves and our lives, and from having fulfilling relationships.
They can also be helpful in cases where physical problems are caused or aggravated by emotional stress. Somatic or Body Psychotherapy can be especially helpful in this respect.
But you don’t have to be mentally ill or have something wrong with you in order to benefit from these processes.
So why do many people think that you must be mentally ill if you seek the help of a counsellor or psychotherapist?
I think that the way that some Counsellors and Psychotherapists present themselves professionally can give this impression.
Some practitioners of these modalities, as well as their professional associations and training institutions, use the word “clinical” to describe their work, and in many professional associations clinical membership is considered the highest level.
So it makes sense to ask – why would someone seek the help of a clinical practitioner unless something is wrong with them?
I believe that we need to distinguish between
- emotional dysfunction that is a result of a disorder of the brain or nervous system, and which requires medical or clinical treatment. This is what I think should rightly be called “mental illness”, and we need to educate people to understand this and remove the social stigma attached to this.
I find that most of these people can benefit from a combination of clinical treatment and an approach to counselling and psychotherapy that I call “emotional learning”.
- emotional disturbance, that can result in high levels of stress, anxiety, depression, self-harm, addiction, and relationship difficulties, that is a result of a person’s inability to function effectively in a society that does not understand and respect his or her needs and values.
By labelling these people as mentally ill, we are not understanding their condition, and we are refusing to accept responsibility as a society, as a nation, indeed as a human race, for our part in creating these “disorders”.
What these people need is validation
They need help to understand – emotionally as well as intellectually – that nothing is wrong with them, or that what is wrong with them stems from their belief that something is wrong with them.
Their belief leads to the conflict that makes it difficult for them to function in this society (family, school, work or other environment).
They need help to find ways of functioning constructively in a society that does not always understand them and that may not share their priorities and values.
They need help and support in being themselves, in thinking “out of the box”, not attempts to push them back into the box by getting them to “adjust” to society.
Being well adjusted to a sick society is not a sign of mental health.
This is not just their problem
We continue to treat this as if it were just an individual problem, as if there’s “obviously” something wrong with children, teenagers and adults who are anxious, depressed or emotionally distressed.
But, as I stated above, it is wrong to conclude that their emotional state indicates that something must be wrong with them or that they are mentally ill.
The contrary is more often true. These feelings often arise because they are intelligent and creative people who do not fit into any of the boxes they are expected to fit into.
Of course if these people are emotionally distressed they need help. But we need to distinguish between those who need clinical or medical intervention, and those who need encouragement and support to be themselves.
We need to recognise that calling people mentally ill when they are struggling mentally and emotionally because they are different and do not fit into society is more likely to reinforce their false beliefs, and therefore their distress, rather than helping them heal.
If this is you,
- when you are seen, valued and respected for who you are
- supported in feeling good about yourself and
- supported in overcoming the fears and challenges that stand in your way
which is what I believe that good therapy is about
You have the potential not only of living a more fulfilling, happier and healthier life, but also of bringing about much needed social change.
The author of this article, Donald Marmara, created Core Development – a process of change and personal growth developed from his professional training and 35 years’ experience in somatic(body) psychotherapy, counselling and structural dynamics.
He can be contacted on 02 9413 9794 or 0412 178 234
Core Development uses a learning rather than a clinical approach, and is not intended as a substitute for medical or clinical treatment where this is indicated.