In my life, I've had a fair amount of experience with counselors, especially recently in regards to my OCD diagnosis. Because of this, I've noticed particularly how in YA lit, whenever a teen is going to see a counselor, they're usually not a very GOOD counselor. The character usually calls them "a shrink", the counselor usually is taking notes and saying things like "How does that make you feel?" instead of being actually helpful, and generally the counselor is distant and uninvolved. (They also sometimes, though not always, have the character do the lying-on-the-couch thing. I have never had a counselor do that in real life, although they do sometimes have very comfy couches to sit on. Really, you're allowed to sit where and however you like.) In general, the YA area seems to have a blatant disregard for counselors that's kind of alarming.
As someone with a mental illness, I'll say right here and now that counseling is very important for many people. It's the primary form of treatment for most mental illnesses, with medication as a supplement to it. I could not have made it through the past year without counseling. The way YA books portray counseling, then, is almost dangerous in the sense that it makes it harder for people to face up to a very serious issue. How are you supposed to get help when every book you read tells you that counselors are useless?
I've worked with five different counselors (long-term, not just as a one-time basis -- there are a few more of those) and I can say right now there are good and bad counselors both. I've experienced both. It's important, when you seek help, to find a good one. They ARE out there, despite their lack of representation in YA lit. So today I thought I'd talk a bit about finding a good counselor, based off of my experience.
Two years later, my family fell into some very difficult issues that have only deepened and spread since then. I went to the counselor for help. These issues were the sort of things that school counselors should definitely be trained to help with, I'll say that much. I went to her primarily out of concern for my youngest brother, who is autistic and at the time was in kindergarten. The counselor was extremely unhelpful once again, gave me no real advice or support, and essentially let me and my younger brothers down. I went to her for a few weeks at her request and then just stopped. I had lost all faith in her as a counselor, and, in a lot of ways, in me being able to get help. Later on, I discovered there was a full-on psychologist working for the school district who she could have turned to for help, but didn't. That only made it worse.
I didn't go to another counselor until college. Through years of continual struggle with my undiagnosed OCD, my developed fibromyalgia, and the family problems, I had essentially taken care of myself because I didn't have anyone else, and I didn't believe I could find help. But my second semester of college, I had the first of two breakdowns that would lead to my diagnosis. This first one was milder. It mostly involved a lot of crying for no reason and in inappropriate places, such as the middle of choir. After having had a pretty good first semester at college, I figured maybe I was just going back to "normal", but my friends were concerned and urged me to get help.
So I agreed to use the free counseling program at the college. Colleges are wonderful for having this, let me just tell you. There are so many people out there who need them. At ASU, the counselors were all grad students doing it as kind of practice. So they weren't too experienced, but they were educated and also decently close to the students in age and life stage. The counselor I got in with, Nicole, was one I clicked with right away. She clearly knew what she was doing, which I could safely say after having spent years researching all of this stuff entirely on my own. (I've said before that I'm a psychology nerd; what I didn't say is that a lot of that developed out of need.)
Now, Nicole never caught the OCD. That's the one thing that's against her on my counseling record. But what she did do was give me a safe place to talk about all my family problems, which was something I had never been allowed to do before. She was also very good at reframing my thoughts and feelings and stating them in a way that made them much clearer to me. She taught me a lot about family structure and the psychology of that, and the things I learned from her I still do apply today. She got me through that semester and by the end, I felt pretty good again. It's thanks to her that I trust counselors, at least some of them, again. So she was pretty darn important. (Incidentally, she's the only counselor I've had that took notes during the session, as seen in so many YA books. Even then, she paid much more attention to me than you see in those stories.)
At that point, I had decided to transfer colleges because I knew I needed something different, so the summer was already set to be tumultuous. But returning home was much more difficult than I expected. My family problems had essentially worsened since I had left, and I hadn't been there to adjust to it. I lasted for about a month before I felt myself getting sicker again mentally. I soon experienced the second of the two breakdowns, this one much worse. During this time I had started up with a new counselor, one of the only ones with openings in my area. This counselor meant well, but was not good quality-wise. She had a tendency to go off with stories of her own life, which is not professional behavior in a counseling setting, and got overexcited about things in a way that was not helpful to me.
But I did, at which point I promptly fell very ill again both mentally and physically. I'd already known I needed to go get counseling through the school center ASAP; now the ASAP became extra urgent. So I got in the first week and was able to start counseling with Brother Walker, who immediately diagnosed me with OCD.
This was a really upsetting thing for me at the time and I'll go into more detail in our next post, but once I got over the shock, Brother Walker was able to do for me what no one else had -- he was able to explain why everything in my life had always been so wrong. I could attribute parts of it to my family, but not enough. The OCD filled in all of the gaps. Through that semester, though I struggled, Brother Walker gave me the skills and knowledge I needed to handle the OCD on a basic level. He was probably the most low key counselor I've ever had, which at that point was exactly what I needed. He calmed me down and made it okay, for the first time, for me to slip up once in a while. Which I have done. A lot. He was incredibly supportive.
The only issue there ever was with that counseling is that it didn't address my family problems at all. In a way, though, being able to focus instead on myself and the skills I personally needed was better. It gave me what I needed to face up to both my problems and my family's (though it has been extremely difficult.)
I returned home early, as you know, to try and get it together after all of this having happened. I started counseling right off with a new guy, Mike, who was very different from Brother Walker but seemed on top of things from the start. It was difficult, that summer (which in this case spans April to September), because of all the new revelations and the continuing struggle of my family. There were moments I thought I wasn't going to make it, moments I was backsliding. It was extra hard because I was once again, in counseling, addressing my family. It was so much simpler to address my OCD at school, when I wasn't trying to address it in the midst of some very real, serious problems. But it was necessary for me to learn to do that, to face up to all of these problems combined, which was a large part of why I did return home.
Now I'm at the end of Fall semester, during which I once again had counseling with Brother Walker. The counseling went well and simpler than ever before--this semester I've done wonderfully well. As of this week, I have been officially discharged from counseling. Brother Walker believes I've come far enough that I can handle things without it, that I've learned the skills I need. But none of this would have been possible without him and the others who have helped me through things. I'm eternally grateful for good counselors.
So, what I'm saying is that there are both good and bad counselors out there. Some are damaging, some are mediocre, some are very helpful. You have to work to find the good ones, and you should, because it's worth it. From my experience, here are a few things you want in a counselor:
- Addresses your most pressing needs at that point in time
- Has a good knowledge of psychology and of the resources available to them and you both
- Does not add stress to you other than what is definitely required to help you improve
- Acts professional -- doesn't bring their life/issues into the workplace more than is absolutely directly essential to helping you
- Most of all, connects with you personally -- the kind of je ne sais quoi where you know you can talk to them and trust them (on a professional basis, of course)
Do you have experience with counselors? Any advice to add?
Images via youthservicesslc.wordpress.com, wikihow.com, psychcentral.com, and socialanxietyinstitute.org.