girl seat on hill
girl seat on hill

The Mental Health Pendulum Swing

I have been noticing a disturbing trend in Mental Health after having been in the field for the past 40-plus years. When I graduated college in 1982, it was considered shameful to have a mental health “disorder.” People didn’t want to admit it, and many people kept it secret, simply hoping their symptoms weren’t on full display for all to see. Parents of children with mental health concerns tended to make excuses for them and tried to normalize their behavior. This caused a lot of pain for people affected by mental health concerns.

In the decades since, society has taken strides toward destigmatizing mental health. People are no longer afraid to talk about their mental health concerns, admit they have a counselor or therapist, or take medication. However, there are still places where having mental health challenges is considered shameful.

People in the military may fear retaliation, such as having their weapons taken from them, should they report mental health concerns. Helping professionals don’t want to admit they have mental health concerns because they fear no one would want to seek their help, although many recognize the importance of having their own therapists and see it as role-modeling the behavior they want in their clients. People in high-pressure careers—health care, law enforcement, or executive-level positions, for example—may feel pressure to maintain a façade of stability and resilience, making it difficult to admit vulnerability.

When it comes to societal change, there is often a pendulum effect, as progress swings far past the mark we are attempting to reach. I believe that’s happened with mental health, and the pandemic only exacerbated this situation.

In my work with Gen Z, I rarely encounter a person who doesn’t have a diagnosis or take some type of psychiatric medication. This has gone too far: What once was stigmatizing has now become trendy, and it is not healthy. Young people think there is something wrong with them if they aren’t seeing a counselor or on some type of medication. Many parents think it’s their responsibility to ensure their children are being seen professionally; they believe they aren’t being good parents otherwise.

I’m concerned that parents are looking to therapists to care for children through normal emotional challenges and that teens don’t believe they have what it takes to navigate their own problems. As a counselor, I am aware of how much we can help people who are struggling with something emotional, but building resilience happens when you face challenges yourself or with members of your familiar support system. Of course, if a person’s challenges exceed their ability to manage them and their support system isn’t up to the challenge, then a counselor can become a member of their support team.

How can we know where the line is? The line isn’t black and white; there are many shades of gray. Parents, it’s great to take your child to a counselor when they don’t want to talk to you, have expressed serious emotional dysregulation for more than two weeks, or when the distress is severe. Teens, you may need a professional if you are unwilling to speak with your parents about what is going on, your parents are the cause of your distress, or you are thinking of hurting yourself or someone else.

My concern is that with the great job that’s been done on destigmatizing mental health concerns, we may be circumventing regular conversations and connections that develop a person’s natural support system. Dr. William Glasser believed the cause of most long-term psychological problems were relationship problems. Cultivating relationships that are positive, healthy, and supportive is one of the most important life skills a person can develop.

Just last week, I spoke with a woman who has been on psychiatric medication since she was a child. Now in her late 30s, she has struggled every time she has tried to come off her medication. When I asked her how she first became involved with psychiatry, she told me that she felt detached from her mother, who was always busy working. At age 12, she told her mother that she was depressed, and at once, her mother set her up for counseling. From there, she was referred to the psychiatrist who put her on anti-depressants. I asked her what benefit she had hoped to gain from that initial depression, and she realized, she was attempting to get her mother’s attention. Instead, her mother passed her along to a professional—the opposite result her child needed.

I’m an advocate for counseling when it’s needed. It cannot replace developing the important relationships we need in our lives by sharing our pain with people who care—people who can hear our pain, feel our pain, and help us feel better simply by being there through a challenging time. We need connection, not medication.

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