Counseling Today, From the President

From the President: Mental health and optimal growth

Gerard Lawson April 30, 2018

Gerard Lawson, ACA’s 66th president

After just wrapping up Counseling Awareness Month in April, we are heading into Mental Health Month, an initiative begun by Mental Health America that the American Counseling Association has participated in for decades. We know that counselors help people who have mental or emotional disorders, but counselors also help people who are struggling with life’s challenges, even when that may not rise to the level of a diagnosis. Part of the reason we excel in this work is because our roots are in mental health and wellness, as opposed to a focus on pathology.

Some would suggest that this unique aspect of how counselors approach their work can be traced back to ancient mythology. In Greek mythology, Asclepius was the god of medicine and his wife, Epione, was the goddess of the soothing of pain. Together, they had several children who also represented parts of the healing arts. These offspring were individually known for their skills of diagnosis (Podalirius), surgery (Machaon) and recuperation (Iaso). Another daughter, Panacea, believed she had the universal remedy.

Those influences evolved into the medical model, which is widely practiced today, including in psychology. But one daughter, Hygieia, focused on wellness and prevention of illness. Those who followed her teachings ultimately laid the foundation for the mental hygiene movement (the word hygiene is derived from Hygieia), and this movement became the foundation for mental health counseling. A focus on wellness, mental health and prevention is what makes counselors unique in the behavioral sciences.

These days, part of our work in helping people lead more complete and fulfilling lives is because we focus on wellness across domains. We spend a great deal of time attending to clients’ emotional and cognitive well-being, but we also focus on their wellness in other domains, including physical, social, spiritual, vocational and educational. This year, the theme for Mental Health Month centers on that very idea of wellness across domains. The focus on Fitness #4Mind4Body introduces the public to topics in which counselors are already well versed, such as how physical activity can help with depression and anxiety, how good sleep hygiene can help with stress management, and how yoga and body work can be an integral part of trauma recovery.

Counselors have long recognized that the separation between mind and body is artificial. We need to ensure that we stay within our scope of practice (e.g., not recommending specific dietary changes), but focusing on wellness across domains is how counselors work and is part of how we help.

The other difference we can recognize during Mental Health Month is the importance of the counseling relationship in counseling. Counselors value a relationship that honors what is right in our clients’ lives, while also recognizing that there are areas of struggle. That can simply be described as strength-based or person-centered, but it is also part of what makes the work we do as counselors unique and powerful. We approach the relationship in a more client-focused way because we know that relationships are where the work takes place, and by honoring clients and their strengths, we are expecting different outcomes. The outcome isn’t merely better coping; we set the groundwork for growth that encourages changes across domains.

So as we meander into spring and observe the beautiful flowers and trees blooming all around us, remember that the soil, sun, water and environment are all necessary for that optimal growth. Similarly, the conditions that you provide to your clients, including a focus on mental and physical health, a focus on strengths, and a supportive relationship, are also necessary ingredients for growth. During Mental Health Month, it is worth remembering that the work you do makes the world a more beautiful place.

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