Human development … There’s a stigma attached to seeking or receiving mental health services. Unlike receiving treatment for breast cancer or heart disease or a myriad of other body illnesses, seeking or receiving mental health services is mostly perceived as a mark of disgrace. In fact, society will often stigmatize less and accept the manifestation of physical ailments due to poor self-care, than those associated with mental and emotional issues.
Perhaps, if we were to frame counseling and treatment for mental health as a means to develop into the best version of ourselves—optimizing our emotional, mental, and spiritual well-being—we could begin to reduce the stigma and move the conversation into a more life-enhancing, growth-producing, human development framework.
What’s to Blame?
As counseling professionals, we can blame societal attitudes for helping to perpetuate the stigma of seeking mental health care. We can instruct people on how mental illnesses are no different than physical illnesses. We can work to educate the public on how counseling—in the same manner as a medical doctor’s care—can help individuals with mental illness heal and cope with something that isn’t their fault. But, while focusing on symptoms and pathologies can enable us to codify, categorize, and systemically treat mental and emotional problems, it can also impede or distract us from addressing the potential causes of these same problems—the dysfunctional sub-cultures, organizations, systems, and relationships in which we find ourselves.
We sometimes fail to see the link between how our toxic environments are debilitating to our mental, emotional, and spiritual wellness. Leaving us only as sick as our surroundings. This response is tantamount to doctors who treat the symptoms of heart disease, diabetes, joint problems, and other physical issues without addressing nutrition, exercise, or practices that are hazardous to one’s health.
A Sense of Self
Our bodies and psyches have an intelligence for goodness of fit, alignment, pulsation, and synchronicity—what is authentic and healthy for us—and when we ignore, attempt to defy, or overwrite this intelligence, it speaks back to us in the language of physical and/or psychiatric symptoms. Sometimes we are depressed, because our lives are depressing. We use pornography because we are lonely and crave intimacy. We have social anxieties because we erroneously believe we will be judged by others; we are paranoid because we don’t practice accountability and introspection (we hear constructive criticism as others being out to get us); we have anger management problems because we lack the emotional intelligence to self-sooth or we are converting vulnerable feelings of fear, shame, and hurt into empowering feelings of anger. And we have relationship, work, and money problems because of our addictions.
Caring for Ourselves – Human Development
What if we respond to our symptoms—depression, anxiety, addiction, etc.—first as feedback; data telling us something is awry, something in our life needs to change? What if we construe our symptoms as an invitation to take care of ourselves, to study our lives, to examine our self-limiting core beliefs to discover buried trauma and emotions, see what it is we can do or practice to further develop? What if we revision mental health services as human development services? And what if we focus on helping individuals break out of systems, behavioral and emotional patterns, and beliefs that constrict their development? Just as physical fitness requires sustainable practice—rather than one merely being endowed with physical fitness—what if we construe mental wellness as a practice, needing also sustainability to work on the practice of improving emotional intelligence, enhancing intimacy, building coping and conflict resolution skills, and overall self-care?
Motivations for Human Development Treatment
The example of a sustainable practice is seen in recovery from addiction. I often tell my clients that if they remain in recovery—the practice of sustained self-examination, good self-care, meditation/prayer, and mentoring relationships designed to increase accountability and insight—they will actually be healthier and more well adjusted than individuals not engaged in recovery.
Their struggle with addiction foisted upon them the need for help. They had to take the first steps of acknowledgement and humbly accept help by participating in recovery and mental health services. They are motivated to remain engaged because they know that if they stop, they risk relapse and a return to insanity and suffering. That’s pretty good motivation. And when these individuals successfully remain engaged in self-care, they develop an emotional, mental, and spiritual fitness beyond what average humans obtain.
But what about individuals who are not forced to seek counseling or treatment. What’s there to motivate them? The sad thing is this: a lot of people don’t seek counseling, coaching, or support groups because they buy into the stigma and the illness paradigm. They tell themselves they aren’t ill or sick and therefore don’t need mental health services.
Nurturing Human Development
Even if you grew up in an environment that effectively nurtured you and supported your development, without ongoing practice and a commitment to your emotional, relational, and spiritual health your growth can stagnate Human development requires that we find our place, our identity, in the diversity of life. We work to honor and become our authentic selves while integrating and living in the potpourri of human beings. We develop a practice and process to continuously grow ourselves up, evolving and developing into the best “us” we can be. Individual, Couples, and Group therapy merely give us access to a professional who can guide us in our practice in the same way as a personal trainer does for physical fitness, or a yogi for mindfulness and body awareness, or a spiritual director/minister for spiritual growth. But it’s on us to practice and do the work. Otherwise, our emotional and relational intelligence can atrophy or cease to further develop.
Changing Your Life
As in any developmental or growth oriented journey, it takes courage, strength, and commitment to break out of constricting systems, roles, and beliefs; even more courage and strength than it does to just learn how to cope and adapt. We often sacrifice our individuality on the altar of maintaining such systems. And when this occurs, the psyche knows it and is vulnerable to psychiatric illness. Just like one can’t constrain stress or distort the skeletal structure of one’s body without eventual consequences of pain and discomfort, we can’t do this to our individuality or our souls either.
Our emotional and mental health is dependent upon honoring our essential goodness and gifts while finding healthy relationships and communities to celebrate those gifts. I often tell my clients, “If therapy works, you’ll have to change your life.”
What Can Counselors Do?
Even counselors in the field unwittingly perpetuate the stigma of mental health care when they focus on individual pathology rather than the unhealthy or oppressive systems that contribute to someone’s mental or emotional problems. Or they may focus only on reducing the symptoms, rather than helping individuals heal and grow themselves up. And to grow, is work, it requires breaking out of old ideas, patterns and systems, while sorting through what to hang onto, what is wellness versus illness producing?
As psychotherapists, we can sometimes distance ourselves from our own work on healing and growth by presenting as experts or humans immune from the task and challenge of healing and growing because we have a degree. We’ve read the textbooks, therefore we have it figured out. As psychotherapists, we owe it to our clients to develop our own practice of growth and development. If we only see counseling for the “ill” or “sick” and haven’t gotten behind the curtain in our own lives, we run the risk of perpetuating the stigma of mental health counseling by distancing ourselves from our own humanity, anxieties, and struggles.
Developing humanity …
At the Men’s Resource Center of West Michigan, we often help men break out of their “man box” that strains their humanity—that teaches them emotions make you weak while control and independence make you strong. We help them to hang onto the best of their masculinity while reclaiming and developing their humanity—their ability to feel, and emotionally connect with others.
Although they may have entered counseling with anger, relationship or addiction problems, they leave knowing that developing emotional and relational intelligence not only keeps their symptoms at bay but helps them live a better life where they can experience more joy, fulfillment, and purpose. In fact, the conventional view on men’s mental health issues is backwards. Rather than men’s mental health problems creating relationship problems, men’s withdrawal and unsatisfying relationships—or lack of intimate relationships—produce shame, fear and loneliness. And it is these forbidden non-masculine feelings that generate depression, anxiety, acting-out behaviors such as addiction, violence, and/or classic withdrawal. If men are to get healthy and well, they have to revision a masculinity that permits them to be human.
So here’s the question: Would the stigma for mental health counseling dissipate if we adopted a new paradigm—the human development project? What if we join together and support human development and wellness professional services without shame and stigma just as we’ve supported other important services. Let’s properly see mental and emotional wellness as an ongoing practice like dental hygiene, meditation/prayer, exercise, and personal finance. The health of our teeth, spirituality, physicality, and finances are often no better than our practices to sustain them.
By developing mental health practices, we stay mentally fit and emotionally healthy. In fact, we may even be able to prevent or reduce some psychiatric illnesses. We can break out of the stigma of mental health counseling when we break out of the framework it’s stuck in and begin framing it in a health and wellness paradigm—the human development project.