De-Stigmatizing Mental Health: Perspectives from the Counselor’s Couch

A man speaking with a therapist.
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This blog was written in honor of National Mental Health Awareness Month.

Embracing Pandora’s Box

For as long as the world’s been turning, mental health has been viewed as the hidden little secret located inside of the ominous, dark Pandora’s box no one would dare expose. Despite the stigma of mental health, it’s becoming more public as news outlets, social media platforms, television shows, commercials, and box office movies enlighten followers with the state of mental health and how it affects others. Even though we’re seeing more supporters and ambassadors rise up and spread awareness for mental health advocacy, more work and support is needed to show leaders that mental health is just as important as physical health.

Breaking Down the Numbers

The National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) provided a snapshot of data comprised by many organizations such as Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), and the U.S. Department of Justice. The data shows that over 45 million Americans experience mental illness. To put it in context, just imagine there are five employees (including yourself) in your office, and of the five employees, one of you has, or will have a mental illness. Now imagine a department of twenty-five employees. Of this group of twenty-five employees, one will likely have or develop a serious mental health condition. 

Mental illness doesn’t discriminate. It affects all race, ethnicity, color, and gender types. Even obstetricians and mid-wives will conduct a screening for prenatal and postpartum depression, due to depression becoming a major public health concern in the perinatal period. Mental illness can often occur around the time a person is diagnosed with a chronic medical condition as well, as they face fear and uncertainty of their prognosis. Nearly 50% of mental health conditions begin by the age of 14 years old, with the percentage increasing to 75% by age 24. 

In the U.S. as of 2019, suicide was the second leading cause of death for people ages 10-34 and was ranked 10th in the leading overall cause of death. We see heartbreaking stories about individuals taking their own lives, leaving loved ones wondering if they could have done something to prevent this from happening. The sobering reality is sometimes the signs are not visible until it’s too late. But in many cases, if given the opportunity, a medical professional or mental health counselor can engage with the person to explore options and treatments to help reduce suicidal feelings and plans to self-harm. 

I’m Not Ready for Help

Most people can’t take steps to receive help due to fear of losing their job or being discriminated against by their employer; being teased or bullied; not being accepted by their peers, their church, and family members; or the long-lasting effects that a diagnostic label can bring on an individual. By the time an individual receives help, relationships, jobs, careers, and even finances may be way beyond repair. Unfortunately, many people don’t get help because they are unemployed, uninsured, or don’t earn enough to see a counselor on a weekly or biweekly basis. Others just aren’t ready to speak with a licensed counselor and begin the healing process. 

The silver lining of mental health is that sometimes we have to reach rock bottom in order to rebuild, repair, and reestablish. As loved ones, we can also do our part by keeping an eye on the signs and symptoms. 

“As iron sharpens iron, so one person sharpens another.” Proverbs 27:17

Signs and Symptoms to Monitor

Some of the warning signs to closely observe include:

  • Feeling sad or withdrawn for a period of more than two weeks.
  • Intent to harm, i.e., ending one’s life or having an actual plan to do harm/end life.
  • Severe, out of control, high risk behavior that causes harm to self or others.
  • Fear that causes racing heart, physical discomfort, or difficulty breathing.
  • Significant weight loss or weight gain.
  • Consuming an excess amount of alcohol or drugs.
  • Drastic changes in mood, behavior, personality, or sleeping habits.
  • Difficulty concentrating or staying still.
  • Intense worries or fears that disrupt normal daily activities such as work, school, and socializing.
  • Visual or auditory feelings that are out of the ordinary, not related to cultural or religious beliefs.
  • Distorted thoughts and perceptions that make it difficult for the person to recognize what’s reality and what’s fantasy. 

If you or a loved one feel like any of these symptoms are present and interfering with everyday tasks, it’s advised to speak with your primary care physician or a counselor to better understand the origin of these symptoms. These symptoms may have manifested through environmental stressors such as life transitions, work or academic stress, relationship stress, or financial stress. As clinicians, we observe the whole, not just the emotions that consume the brain. We also recognize that there may be genetic predispositions that increase the likelihood of developing mental illness. We also look to rule out any potential medical conditions that could exasperate into a mental illness, e.g., major depressive disorder or anxiety caused by chronic medical condition. 

Benefits of Counseling

One must first choose to speak with a counselor and develop a treatment plan, which would consist of participating in short-term, weekly sessions. Counseling is an opportunity for the client and counselor to build therapeutic trust and rapport. This allows the client to become comfortable with the therapeutic process and gain trust of the counselor. The hope is that within time, the client will practice using healthier solutions to maintain overall well-being and self-worth, as the counselor listens emphatically and verbalizes his/her clinical perspective to make sense of the client’s narrative. 

Counseling is a place filled with rich dialogue and is meant to cleanse the body by processing feelings and developing new solutions to work through similar events if they were to occur again in the future. As rapport building and trust are established, a client feels more confident about communicating their needs and hopes, thus eventually developing better solutions to handling problems. This leads to feeling greater confidence and feeling less anxious. The more confident you feel, the more autonomous you become in solution building. 

According to the American Psychological Association, approximately 75% of people who chose to participate in counseling showed some benefits from their counseling sessions. The commitment one makes to participate in counseling sessions and practice new ways to cope outside of the counseling room could lead to other benefits like healthier relationships, fewer medical problems, positive changes to the body and brain, fewer sick days, and increased work satisfaction.

Reflection

I always encourage people to try to be open to speaking with a counselor. In the last few years, I have noticed clients coming in to speak with me, not because they felt like they might have a mental illness, but because they just needed someone impartial to talk to about life stressors. It’s always good to have a fresh and new perspective on how to navigate life’s challenges. How do you know you’re ready?

Counseling should never be forced on someone, especially if they’re unsure why they were referred for this service (which happens quite often). Also, you should feel comfortable with the counselor. Doing your research beforehand will make the selection process easier. It’s okay to ask the counselor questions about their experience and counseling methods. Similar to the dating world, you want to make sure the counselor/client relationship will be a good fit. You’ll know when you’re ready to speak with a counselor. Hopefully, that time may be now. Are you ready?

Inspiration

I’m thankful that May is National Mental Health Awareness Month. It’s a reminder that we all can make a difference just by checking in on our loved ones, co-workers, and friends. Making an effort to stay connected through a phone call, text message, virtual platform, or sitting in your car and yelling “How’s it going, buddy?” from your friend’s driveway. If there’s any good the pandemic has done, it’s to stay connected and help each other out during these stressful and uncertain times. 

“When God’s people are in need, be ready to help them. Always be eager to practice hospitality.” Romans 12:13

“And don’t forget to do good and to share with those in need. These are the sacrifices that please God.” Hebrews 13:16

We are not immune from the challenges life brings us. Together, we can do this!
 

Guest columnist Kelly Londono
Guest columnist Kenny Londono, MS, LMFT is a Clinical Psychotherapist at the AdventHealth Wellness Center Celebration 

Lifestyle Clinic.

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