I don’t want to throw my fellow mental health counselors, social workers, and marriage and family therapists under the bus, but they really don’t know as much as you think they do.
A graduate level education in these disciplines is a broad education about mental health. We take generalized classes such as: helping skills, diagnosis and treatment, multiculturalism, etc. They are all broad, sweeping classes meant to give us an overview. They have to be that way - we need to have a general foundational understanding.
If we want to learn more specifically about something, we can do that in our own papers for each course (such as picking the topic of something we’d like to learn more about) or paying extra to take additional courses in something more specific that interests us.
Many of us feel we have no idea what we’re doing as therapists, and we often don’t until we get into our internships. This is one way in which we can learn something more specific - we can select an internship site that specializes in a topic that is interesting to us, such as couples counseling or substance abuse.
However, that doesn’t mean we are receiving knowledge prior to seeing clients. Our education in our internships comes from trying therapy with clients, then discussing it with our supervisors afterwards to learn from our mistakes or lack of progress with clients.
The quality of the supervision has an incredible impact. When I asked for more education on the speciality topic of my internship site, I was told some books to read. That is very common. Counselors are incredibly busy and incredibly burnt out and exhausted. They don’t have the time to teach.
The majority of my knowledge has come from reading. It’s a good thing I’m obsessed with reading about psychology. My self-education has been far better than any graduate class I’ve ever taken. That may say a lot about my graduate program, or it may simply speak to the nature of things as they are. Time is limited and of course they cannot teach specifics about each disorder. The DSM-5 has over 150 diagnoses. There simply isn’t time for us to be well-educated in each of these.
So when you go to a general therapist and you feel it isn’t that helpful and it’s a shitty experience - it’s probably because it is.
They don’t know as much as you think they know.
Furthermore, counselors are so overloaded with clients that they don’t have the time to self-educate and learn more.
So what do you do if you’re a client seeking quality mental health care?
Look for someone who specializes. Look for someone who has clearly devoted time and effort to their education and development as a quality professional.
How can you do this?
Do they have a website? Do they share their specialities? Do they share their values that impact therapy? Do they have a blog or other publications? Do they present at conferences? Do they have material on their website that actually speaks to you?
Furthermore, you can also do a consultation with a therapist prior to becoming their client and ask key questions to make sure they have knowledge on the topics that are bringing you to therapy.
What if you’re a therapist disappointed with your education?
First off, I understand. Second, find yourself a great supervisor. If the quality of supervision sucks. Leave. Find yourself a great supervisor for paid supervision or paid consultation.
Second, it’s on you now. You need to be the person to self-educate. Find the topics that interest you. Study them. If you don’t have time, decrease your case load. Make time. Take your profession seriously and what you need to feel competent in it.
I’ve heard too many times people say they tried therapy and it didn’t work. That doesn’t mean therapy didn’t work. It means THAT therapist didn’t work for you. Find someone else.
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