Are therapists responsible for the stigma around mental health care?

Although our society has come a long way, there still is a stigma associated with mental health care, counseling and psychotherapy. I don’t know what the current statistics are(or how you could accurately get at the number), but I would suspect that most people at one point or another will seek the services of a mental health counselor at least once or twice in their lives. Even though mental health care is more accessible and mainstream than ever, it remains a somewhat taboo thing to talk about in social circles. What is driving this continued stigma? I’m going to go out on a limb here and say that it isn’t the media or popular culture that is the biggest contributor to the mental health stigma. The biggest perpetuators of the stigma that accompanies mental health treatment are mental health professionals.

Although therapists are well-intentioned, it seems that the first thing any of us do when we welcome new clients to our practice is to emphasize the confidentiality of the session. This isn’t necessarily because we think it puts the client at ease (although it probably does) but rather because the law requires it. Most of us also share with our clients how we will handle the situation if we run into each other accidentally outside of our sessions together. While these are important things for a client and therapist to discuss, it also can have a stigmatizing effect.

What the therapist is trying to communicate: This is a safe place. Whatever we talk about stays between us. You can trust that I care about you enough that I would never even let someone know you came to see me.

Unfortunately, we might be strengthening a stigma at the same time.

What the client might hear is: Seeing a therapist is weird. It’s shameful to have to deal with a mental health issue. This means I’m really crazy. My therapist doesn’t want anyone to know I’m not well. I shouldn’t tell anyone about this.

What’s ironic is that by emphasizing confidentiality, we unconsciously emphasize the shame that accompany someone reaching out for help from a psychotherapist. I can speak from the perspective of a therapist and unequivocally state that there is no shame in seeing a therapist, at all. In fact, my clients are some of the strongest, most resilient people I know. I admire them and am honored to be part of their brave journey.

It’s important that mental health professionals provide their clients with what is known as “informed consent” – the right to understand how therapy goes and the limits of confidentiality. At the same time, it’s important that we normalize seeking mental health treatment. A little reassurance that there is no shame in seeking counseling goes a long way. In fact, most therapists have been in therapy themselves. (I personally wouldn’t trust one who hadn’t.)

Another way that therapists unintentionally create a stigma around mental health care is their attemt to over-normalize seeking treatment. This can happen by naming the practice something that sounds more like a fun retreat weekend more than it does psychotherapy — Sunny Meadows, The Happy Clinic, Kaleidoscopes, or Coffee Talk. Although I’m being somewhat tongue-in-cheek at humorous practice names, At best, these types of business names make clients feel more comfortable seeking treatment; at worst, they emphasize that mental health treatment needs to exist only under sunny euphamisms. I don’t know any clients who want to romanticize their pain or appreciate it philosophically like an Edgar Allen Poe story. Some therapists even avoid using the word “session” or “therapy”. It makes me wonder — who is afraid of mental health care? Is it the client or the therapist?

As Brene Brown summarizes in her book Daring Greatly, the antidote to shame is vulnerability. As therapists, we can help our clients identify safe people to confide in that they are seeing a counselor. This seemingly oxymoronic safe vulnerability can help clients normalize their experience seeing a therapist – and also help those they talk with have open and honest dialogue about mental health. This, by its very nature, will help to de-stigmatize mental health care.

Jeremy Savage, MA, LPC, is a Licensed Professional Counselor in Denver, Colorado. Through a unique office-sharing arrangement, Jeremy sees clients throughout the Denver metro area at his offices in Denver, Broomfield, and Southeast Aurora. He can be reached for a free phone consultation at 303-834-7005.

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Jeremy Savage, MA, LPC

2727 Bryant St. #104
Denver, CO 80211

jeremy@jeremydavidsavage.com
303-834-7005



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