Jenny Kim | OCTOBER 19, 2018 | 9 MIN READ
This article has been adapted from a talk given to parents of Gen Z students. We believe it is useful to demystify the world of therapy to our audience as a whole.
A few months ago, I was looking for a primary care physician that had the 3 Cs — competent, compassionate, and close by. My friend happened to fit that bill, so I half jokingly asked her to be my doctor.
She responded that she could not be my doctor because we were friends. But I challenged her assertion and asked, “You already know things about me, wouldn’t that better inform your practice?” But again she said no, adding that it was because she would lose objectivity, which is crucial when treating a patient.
In the same way, when families have conflicts, personal feelings and relationship roles color the objectivity of the situation at hand.
Oftentimes the conflict between a parent and child can be resolved within the family, and an outsider's perspective isn’t needed. But sometimes, there seems to be no end to the fighting, miscommunications, and hurt feelings.
Here are a few reasons why therapists might be helpful.
Therapists can be objective because they are not friends nor family members. Clients don’t have to consider questions like: Will what I share make them treat me differently? Will I be punished or judged? Will they be disappointed?
Because I don’t have any ties with my clients outside the therapy room, I am able to see things differently, clients are able to share more freely, and I’m in a better position to help them.
For example, my husband Paul could never be my client, especially if he came to me to talk about his marital problems. In my eyes, he’d always be in the wrong, and my ability to help him would surely be biased.
But good therapists have strictly professional relationships with clients, unskewed by past personal attachments.
I am legally and ethically bound to not share with anyone else what my clients discuss with me. As a mandated reporter, there are limits of confidentiality such as reporting any suspicion of elder or child abuse, as well as breaking confidentiality if I believe my client’s life or someone else’s life is in danger.
This principle might seem trivial, but maintaining privacy isn’t always guaranteed with friends, parents, or church members. Instances of accidental slips or gossip are far too common, and these big deterrents that stop people from sharing their pains and struggles with someone they know.
But I have heard countless clients tell me, “I never shared this with anyone.” It’s not because they think I’m a trustworthy person (they just met me so it’s not based on my personal character), but because they know their feelings and thoughts end with me, their therapist.
A common misconception is that therapists just listen to people vent. When put that way, the act of listening sounds so insignificant. But being a good listener is lifegiving.
No one says, “He or she was a great therapist but a terrible listener.” As therapists, we have been trained to listen well because that’s the only way we can effectively help people. As it says in Proverbs 19:13 “If one gives an answer before he hears, it is his folly and shame.”
Therapy provides clients a set time and place with a professional who has the knowledge and background to address specific issues. There is therefore continuity to work on areas that people want help in.
Friends and parents can get busy and may not be regularly available. In addition, people asking for help may feel like a burden and ask for help less frequently or not at all.
But in therapy, the client can look forward to an appointed meeting time and has no personal obligation to ask me how I’m doing or try to help me in any way. The time is completely for them, and my primary job is to support them.
It’s a scary and overwhelming feeling when a friend or loved one tells you he has suicidal thoughts or shares a traumatic event that happened to her. It’s hard to know what to do or say.
Mental health professionals have the skills to help people in these very situations because it is within our scope of practice In the Christian community, pastors are often the first line of people that are sought out. However, when it comes to mental health issues, they aren’t always the most equipped and understandably so, for it was not part of their seminary degree. (In the same vein, there are times when the best person to talk to is your pastor and not your therapist.)
TYPES OF MENTAL HEALTH PROFESSIONALS
So if you or your family want counseling, who do you go to? There are different types of mental health professionals, and here is a short primer on their jobs.
Psychiatrists are medical doctors, and they are the only ones who can prescribe medication. There is a stigma attached to psychotropic medication, but sometimes it’s helpful to think of our brain like any other organ of the body that isn’t working properly. We would never discourage someone from taking the proper medication if he had problems with his heart. While drugs can be abused and overly prescribed, for some it is absolutely appropriate and necessary.
Psychologists are people who have a doctorate (look for the Ph.D. or Psy.D. after the name). They are able to use certain tests and assessments to diagnose and develop a treatment plan. Their background is more academic and research-focused and are likely to have specialties with a specific population.
I want to add here that receiving a diagnosis is not a death sentence. It doesn’t define who the person is or the kind of life he or she will live, but it does spotlight an area of the person’s life that should be acknowledged and managed. For some, it’s actually a relief to be able to name their experience and to know that they are not alone. There is hope and help for them.
Marriage & Family Therapists
Marriage & family therapists focus on the emotional and relational issues of an individual. They view the person and their presenting issues as part of a system and work within that framework.
For example, if a child needs counseling, parents should not think of therapy as a drop-off center with the mindset of, “You help my child.” When I was a school counselor, one of the most frustrating experiences was not having the parental support in the therapy process. Instead, parents play an integral and vital role in a child’s progress, and when working together, the outcomes are far more successful.
So where do you start? A great resource is psychologytoday.com, which provides therapist biographies and areas of specialty. Direct referrals can be helpful, but find someone who has experience working with the area of the person’s need.
I tell my clients at every intake that I may not be the right therapist for you and that is okay. You don’t have to go with whoever you see first. Utilize the free 10-15 minute free consultations that many therapists provide to ask questions and get a feel for them before scheduling the first appointment.
Let me address perhaps one of the common complaints I hear about therapy: it costs too much money. But we spend money on things we value and deem as important. If you feel like you could benefit from counseling, know that it will be one of the most important investments you can make for yourself.
Finally, I want to encourage the church in how it can play an active role in supporting its church members. First and foremost, talk about mental health and don’t let it be a taboo subject. Second, create a financial budget for counseling so members can access the care they need. Lastly, connect people within the church who have similar stories. Creating groups centered on particular issues can bring a sense of comfort to so many people who feel like they are alone.
I hope this article was hopeful for those who were intimidated by therapy in any way. As a mental health professional and Christian, I am hopeful to see the other ways in which God can use His people to minister to those who are hurting.
Jenny Kim is an Associate Marriage and Family Therapist. She is a deacon at Living Hope Community Church. She is married to her best friend, Paul, and enjoys spending time with the other love of her life, their rescue dog Clayton.