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Thursday, January 17, 2013

Wellness Matters: Debunking the common myths about therapy – and therapists

By Blake L. Jones
KyForward columnist
 

It seems as if every time I have a client who has never been to a counselor, I have to spend an inordinate amount of time debunking the myths they have heard about therapy and calming their nerves about what’s in store. In the interest of paving the way for those of you who have never been to a therapist, I give you the “Top 10 Myths about Psychotherapy and Psychotherapists.”
 

1. “If I go to see a therapist, it means I’m crazy.” Although it has become less stigmatizing to see a mental health counselor, there are still people who fear that counseling is for “crazy” people or those who simply can’t handle their own problems. I love the saying that “crazy means doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results.” I have a huge amount of respect for people who stop the merry go round, get off and try to do something different. In my book, they are not crazy, but courageous.
 

2. “I’ll just go see a psychiatrist and she/he will give me medicine AND therapy.” I’ve had a number of clients over the years tell me that they went to see a psychiatrist and “all they wanted to do was put me on medicine when I just needed to TALK to somebody.” I don’t want to diminish the power of medication to lift depression or calm anxiety, but it’s important to understand that in today’s hurried managed care environment, prescribers simply don’t have the time to engage in talk therapy AND prescribe medicine. There are exceptions, of course, but if you want to spend some time “unpacking” your issues, find a licensed therapist.
 

3. “Counseling is Expensive.” When people hear that therapists charge anywhere from $75-150/hour, they immediately think that they can’t afford therapy. The good news is that most insurances cover some sort of mental health counseling, and many companies provide free counseling through their employee assistance programs. I ask my clients to look at therapy as an investment into their overall health and wellbeing. If you have no insurance or your co-pay is high, you may wish to consider agencies such as Family Counseling Services or Comprehensive Care. They have a sliding scale and you can pay for whatever you can afford.
 

4. “I’ll have to stay in therapy for years.” Although there are some people who choose—or need—to stay in therapy for years, most counseling is brief and focused. In fact, solution-focused, brief therapy is one of the leading types of therapy being used today. This type of therapy is, well, solution-focused and brief. It teaches clients to see their problems as manageable and reinforces to them that they have power to imagine a “solution” to their problems. I want to be clear here. There is no shame in choosing to stay in therapy for a long time, if that is what is needed. Some people just need to “check in” with their therapist from time to time. But the majority of therapy lasts just a few months.
 

5. “If a man goes to marriage counseling, the therapist will blame me for my marriage problems.” It pains me to see it; the horribly uncomfortable man, twisting in his chair. Wanting to be anywhere but in my office. Usually, his wife has “convinced” him that they need couples counseling, and he has reluctantly agreed. There is a sigh of relief when I say to him, “Look, I want you to know that I don’t believe that YOU are the problem. It takes two to make a relationship work, so this process is about looking at the things that both of you are bringing to the relationship—good and bad—and talking honestly about what each of you are willing to change.” Therapy is not about blame; it’s about finding solutions and encouraging growth. It’s also about honesty, so if, for example, one partner does share an inordinate amount of “blame” for the trouble (e.g., substance abuse, infidelity, domestic violence, etc.), then that needs to be said.
 

6. “The therapist is a magician.” I’m always amazed at the people who tell me when discussing their former therapist, “I went to see that therapist twice and it didn’t work” or “That therapist told us all of this stuff that didn’t save our marriage.” I like to tell people that their problems didn’t form overnight and they will not go away overnight. Also, therapy is just ONE way of taking charge of your life. Ultimately, whether or not therapy is successful depends on a number of factors, including a good fit with the therapist, the client doing the work required of therapy, and luck. Therapists are not magicians. There are no magic wants lying around my office.
 

7. “If I have spiritual beliefs, I can’t talk about them in therapy.” I discussed this in an earlier article (available here). Although some therapists do shy away from talking about matters of spirituality with their clients, most of us understand that faith, spirituality and believing in something “bigger” than us can be immensely helpful to people who seek therapy. If you are person who has these beliefs, talk honestly with your therapist about them. In my practice, it’s OK to question, to disbelieve, to be angry with God. It’s also OK to use things such as prayer and Bible reading to support my clients getting well.
 

8. “Everybody will know my secrets.” There are strict laws guarding patient information. Ever heard of HIPPA? Mental health records are even harder to release. If you are coming to therapy through an employee assistance program, your employer will not know the reason unless you are sent there mandatorily (check with your human resources manager if you have concerns). Insurance companies may have access to confidential records, so please also check with them if this is a concern. Some people choose to pay cash so that this is not an issue.
 

9. “All therapists are the same.” I shudder every time I hear about a new TV show or movie that is going to portray a psychotherapist. It seems that, inevitably, the therapist is an arrogant, overpaid jerk who makes his clients (or “patients”) lie down on the couch and tell them all of their dark secrets. The truth is, most therapists got into the business to help people. Some of the most compassionate, dedicated people I have ever met have been fellow therapists. Most therapists have been in therapy themselves, so they know the anxiety that comes with seeing a counselor for the first time. Remember that your therapist is human; we have bad days, family problems, bills and health problems just like everyone else. Give us a little bit of time to know you, and try to get to know us on a human level.
 

10. “Therapy is a waste of time.” I would say to this one: It depends. As I mentioned before, some people go into therapy as a last-ditch effort to “fix things.” Some people don’t want to change at all, but just want someone to listen to their troubles. Some couples come to therapy after already deciding to break up; they just want someone to condone their decision. My point is, again, that therapy is not a magical cure. Numerous studies have shown that therapy is greatly effective in, for example, relieving the symptoms of depression and anxiety, helping with marital problems and improving communication in families. Therapy is, however, a human endeavor. And humans are, well… human.
 

Blake Jones, MSW, LCSW, Ph.D., is a licensed clinical social worker at Access Wellness Group, a Lexington-based group providing counseling and addiction treatment services to individuals, families and Employee Assistance Program client companies. Jones specializes in couples counseling, men’s issues and work-related problems.  He is a graduate of Berea College and the University of Kentucky.  Jones, who lives in Woodford County with his wife of 17 years and their two sons, is also a singer-songwriter.
 

Click here to see other Wellness Matters columns.

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