I've had a fair amount of experience with counselors, especially recently in regards to my OCD diagnosis. Because of this, I've noticed how in YA lit, when a teen goes to see a counselor, it's usually not a very good counselor. Often referred to as "a shrink," the counselor usually takes lots of notes and says things like "How does that make you feel?" instead of being helpful. They usually have the character lie on a couch while talking to them, which is a weird stereotype that doesn't fit my experience. Just in general, fictional counselors are distant and uninvolved.
As someone with a mental illness, I can confirm 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 is dangerous because 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) and I can say right now there are good and bad both out there. It's important, when you seek help, to find a good one. They do exist, 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 had some very difficult issues. I went to that same school counselor for help. These issues were the sort of things that school counselors should definitely be trained to help with, but she 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 faith in me being able to get help. Later on, I discovered there was a trained psychologist working for the school district whom she could have turned to for help, but didn't.
I didn't try counseling again until college. I suffered through years of undiagnosed OCD, along with fibromyalgia and family problems, without any professional help. I didn't believe I could find help. I certainly never suspected I had a mental illness that could be treated; I just thought this was the way that I was--a pessimist, moody, lacking in self-confidence. I thought I would be like that forever.
Then, my second semester of college, I had the first of two mental breakdowns. 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. This happened after a pretty good first semester at college, and I figured maybe I was just going back to "normal." But my new friends were concerned and urged me to get help.
So I agreed to use the free counseling service available at college. At ASU, the counselors were all training grad students, so they weren't too experienced, but they were educated and close to the students in age and life stage. The counselor I got in with, Nicole, I liked right away. Based off of the years I'd spent researching psychology in order to self-manage my symptoms, I could tell she knew what she was doing.
Now, Nicole didn't recognize the OCD. But what she did do was give me a safe place to talk about 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 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 regained faith in counseling.
By that point, I'd decided to transfer colleges, so the summer was already set to be tumultuous. But returning home was much more difficult than I expected. I lasted for about a month before I felt myself becoming 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 in my area. She meant well, but was not good quality-wise. She liked to talk about herself, which is not professional behavior, and got overexcited about things in a way that was not helpful to me.
I finally made it to BYU-I, at which point I promptly fell very ill both mentally and physically. I'd already known I needed to get counseling through the school ASAP; now the ASAP became an issue of major urgency. I did get an appointment the first week and was able to start counseling with Brother Walker--who immediately diagnosed me with OCD.
This was really upsetting 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 explained why everything in my life had always felt so wrong. 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 chill counselor I've ever had, which was exactly what I needed. He had a calming effect, and he made it okay, for the first time, for me to make mistakes.
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 was on top of things from the start. It was difficult, that summer, because of all the new information I had to deal with. There were moments I thought I wasn't going to make it. It was extra hard because I was once again addressing my family issues in counseling. 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 better than ever before. As of this week, I have been officially discharged. Brother Walker believes I've come far enough that I can handle things without counseling, and 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.
Basically, 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, but you absolutely 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 definitively required to help you improve
- Acts professional and doesn't bring their own life into the workplace more than is necessary to help you
- Most of all, connects with you--possesses a je ne sais quoi where you know you can talk to and trust them
Do you have any advice to add?
Images via youthservicesslc.wordpress.com and psychcentral.com.