A nonprofit publication of the Kentucky Center for Public Service Journalism

Wellness Matters: Recognizing strengths
with challenges gives healthier perspective


By Blake L. Jones
KyForward columnist

I’ll never forget the sight: The patient who earlier in the morning had been lying prone on the floor, sobbing, was now doing a load of laundry. She was focused on her task, folding each piece of clothing neatly, stopping at times to sniff the flowery smell of her newly washed clothes. It was on the behavioral health unit at Saint Joseph Hospital. I was a young social work intern there, and the transformation of this suicidal patient into someone simply taking care of her clothes is a lesson that has stuck with me for more than 20 years.

How was she able to go from being unable to function to washing and folding her clothes?

In social work, we talk often of the “strengths” perspective. Put simply, the strengths perspective means that every person — EVERY person — has something that he or she can do well, something that he or she can offer the world.

I have seen this play out again and again in my career as a therapist. I have counseled women who have been brutally abused and raped by a husband over the years, yet they are able to get up and go to a job every day or to finish a college degree.

I have worked with men whose addictions have nearly ended their lives, but they try again and again and again to beat those addictions; people who have grown up not knowing where their next meal would come from going on to become physicians; teenagers who were threatened and bullied because of their sexual orientation graduate summa cum laude.

When people come to see us in therapy, they are often full of shame. I frequently hear, “I am weak. Why can’t I handle this on my own? I can’t do anything right.” When I hear this, I tend to say something like: “Wow, with all of these struggles going on in your life, how were you able to even get here today? How were you able to go to your job, or make dinner for your family, or workout.” The point is that, despite the many weaknesses or challenges that people face in their lives, most of the time they are quite adept at doing the things that get them through the day.

I find it shameful that so much of mental health work is based on pathology and sickness. We even have a common way of writing about clients — or “patients” — that describes the “History of the Present Illness” or “Problem Formulation.” This way of seeing humans who seek mental health treatment as damaged or incapable — literally “sick” — is limiting.

Wouldn’t it be better if we saw people as having strengths as well as challenges? What if we paid attention to the things that people CAN do instead of what they can’t.

If you are someone who is considering counseling but are afraid of appearing weak, I leave you with the words of Dr. Elisabeth Kübler-Ross, a pioneer in the field of grief: “The most beautiful people I’ve known are those who have known trials, have known struggles, have known loss, and have found their way out of the depths.”

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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