Common Myths About Mental Health, Mental Illness and Professional Counseling
By Charles “Rip” McAdams, Ed.D.
Professor and Chair, School Psychology and Counselor Education
William & Mary
The 21st century has seen increasing acknowledgement by the general public of the value in seeking professional counseling for assistance with personal problems. According to recent research, only about 1 percent of elders and 8 percent of baby boomers report being currently engaged in counseling, whereas 21 percent of millennials and 14 percent of Gen Xers report that they are seeing a counselor or therapist.
About four in 10 Americans (42 percent) now report have seen a counselor or therapist at some point in their lives. Despite these more recent increases in the use of professional counseling services, 15 percent of millennials and 18 percent of Gen Xers still say they would never see a counselor or therapist, while the percentages of baby boomers and elders who say they would never see a counselor or therapist are twice as high at 34 percent and 30 percent, respectively.1
To understand many people’s continuing hesitancy to seek professional counseling, it is helpful to look at the history of mental health services before and after the Community Mental Health Act of 1963. The Community Mental Health Act was signed into law under President John F. Kennedy, and it led to the development of comprehensive community mental health centers across the country.2 It also established a goal of helping those with mental health concerns to remain in their own communities as productive citizens and, accordingly, encouraged the development of new medical and psychotherapeutic treatments.
Prior to the Community Mental Health Act, those with mental health concerns had few treatment options other than psychiatric hospitalization; thus, having a mental health concern became nearly synonymous with needing to be placed into an asylum. Mental illness was viewed not as a condition to be treated but, rather, as a lifelong affliction rendering individuals unfit to be a part of regular society.
Hospitals for the mentally “insane” served more to warehouse patients and control their behavior through medical and mechanical means than to treat and possibly cure them (as would be the goal of a general medical hospital). At a time when there was such a negative societal view of mental illness and its treatment, an admission of having a mental health concern could subject a person to public stigmatization as being “crazy” and often to a loss of personal freedom and productivity through hospitalization.
Despite the many positive changes that have occurred since the passing of the Community Mental Health Act nearly 60 years ago, a number of negative views of mental health treatment have persisted as unfounded myths that continue to prevent people from pursuing counseling services when they are struggling with psychological and emotional issues. These mental health myths can also negatively influence people’s decisions about becoming counselors or other mental health professionals.
Counseling and Mental Health Myths
Several of the major myths about mental health and counseling intervention are:
- Counseling is only for those with serious mental illness.
- Just talking in counseling about problems is not going to solve the problems.
- There is no need to talk to a counselor, since talking to a good friend is just as good.
Facts About Counseling and Mental Health
The facts are:
- While counselors sometimes help those with severe mental illness to manage and cope with their symptoms, they more often work to help people overcome everyday problems like career transitions, relationship issues, sadness, stress and anxiety. Counselors may also be called on to provide support and guidance in the aftermath of natural disasters and other crisis situations.
- Counseling is much more than simply talking about problems. Counselors apply various therapeutic models designed to help people gain insight into the past and present causes of their problems and formulate possible solutions and methods for overcoming problems in the future.
- Talking with a counselor is not the same as talking with a friend. Counselors are trained to set boundaries in their relationships with clients that keep the focus of conversation where it needs to be—on the clients’ change goals and on strategies for making the desired change occur.
Myths About Counselors
There are also some common myths about who counselors are and what they intend to do:
- To be a counselor, you have to have your own life in perfect order.
- Counselors will try to make you be who they think you should be.
- To be a counselor, you have to have an extraordinarily wide range of life experiences.
Facts About Counselors
The facts are:
- Counselors are human, and like all humans, they experience pain and suffering from time to time. What is most important is that counselors are willing to recognize and accept their own problematic issues and able to keep these issues from influencing their work with clients.
- The goals of counseling are developed in partnership between the counselor and the client. Counselors ask questions to help guide clients in determining what it is they want to do and why. They reflect back what was said to help clients hear it with an objective ear and ensure a thorough examination. At best, counselors try to help clients to develop insight and learn the necessary skills to resolve their own issues.
- Whereas counselors may not have experienced exactly what their clients have, it does not mean that counselors cannot be empathic to clients’ unique experience and supportive of the suffering their experiences may cause. By creating a safe, nonjudgmental, and supportive place for the client to revisit and objectively process painful experiences, even young people with more limited life experiences of their own can be effective counselors.
As can be seen in the examples above, a clear distinction can be drawn between the myths and realities about mental health treatment and those who provide it. To ensure that both individuals in need of mental health treatment and individuals who are considering becoming mental health treatment providers have accurate information, it is important that truths about counselors and the counseling process be distinguished from the prevailing myths. Unfortunately, the most readily available information about mental health problems and their treatment often comes from media portrayals that sustain these mental health myths by presenting fictionalized and sometimes damaging depictions of therapy and the therapeutic process for the purpose of entertainment.3
Before making decisions about the nature and value of receiving mental health treatment or about becoming a mental health counselor, a careful investigation of the information guiding those decisions is recommended. This investigation should consider information from multiple sources that might include medical professionals, mental health professionals, trusted friends, family and professional literature in addition to online resources. Considering information beyond a single source will help to ensure that important life or career decisions are grounded in factual knowledge rather than on the many persistent myths about mental health, mental illness and professional counseling.
Are you considering a career as a mental health counselor?
William & Mary’s School of Education offers a CACREP-accredited Online Master of Education (M.Ed.) in Counseling with a concentration in Clinical Mental Health Counseling that can set you up for a rewarding career as a counselor. Learn more about our faculty and curriculum.
1. Barna Group, Ltd. (2018, February 27). Americans Feel Good About Counseling. Retrieved on June 1, 2019, from barna.com/research/americans-feel-good-counseling/.
2. Rosenberg, S. J. & Rosenberg, J. (2018). Community mental health. New York, NY: Routledge.
3. Orchowski, L. M., Spickard, B. A., & McNamara, J. R. (2006). Cinema and the valuing of psychotherapy: Implications for clinical practice. Professional Psychology: Research and Practice, 37(5), 506-514.