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What is Counseling?

A reader asks this question:

“So often, articles recommend counseling or professional help. What is that, exactly? I’ve never had it, and am not sure how to go about finding it. What can I expect when I get there? How long does it take? How much does it cost?”

It is so helpful to all when readers write in. The questions are excellent. You are all encouraged to do the same, on any topic.

To “get counseling” simply means you choose to have help through a rough time. Or that you seek a deeper understanding of your situation, so that you can make informed, healthy decisions. One may seek help long after an event has passed, to gain understanding of the effects, and asses the outcome. In the past, people have hesitated to do this. There was a feeling that people might think them crazy, and there was stigma attached. Fortunately, we’ve come to understand that life is hard, and any help is welcome. A healed person creates a healthy atmosphere, and is much more productive. People who carry unnecessary burdens tend to be ineffective in the long run, negatively impacting those around them. So if you EVER wondered if you should seek help, do it. If someone suggests to you that talking to someone may be helpful, act on that advice immediately.

A Counselor is defined as an advisor on personal problems, who helps others with any personal, social, or emotional issues.

This can be someone who has successfully gone through something similar to what you are experiencing. For instance, if you have lost a loved one, someone who has lived through the same life event can be helpful to you. Don’t hesitate to ask a stranger about this. Usually, a person who has gone through such a life changing event is glad to meet someone else who “gets it”. They are usually very generous about helping someone else transition through the process, sharing successes and warning against pitfalls.

A professional counselor may or may not have had a similar occurrence. But they have had extensive study and training to understand, and help you through, the situation in which you find yourself.

A psychiatrist is a medical doctor, specifically trained in 1) the diagnosis and treatment of disorders that have primarily mental or behavioral symptoms and 2) the care of people having such disorders, which may include medication. There will be an “M.D.” (Medical Doctor) or “D.O.” (Doctor of Osteopathology) after their names. If they are not listed with a psychiatric practice, they will certainly list psychiatry as a specialty.

Psychologists haven’t necessarily studied anatomy and physiology extensively. They have focused primarily on the human mind and mental states, and human and animal behavior, as well as the characteristic temperament and associated behavior of a person or group. Much of what we know about the grieving process is a result of psychological study. You’ll find “Psy. D.” or “Ph.D.” after their names. Some have credentials for prescribing medication.

Social Workers may have narrowed their specialties to mental health, rather than school or hospital surroundings. Designated by the “L.C.S.W.” after their names, Licensed Clinical Social Workers provide talk therapy, and are inclined to find community resources to help their clients.

Certified Grief Counselors are people who have been through traumatic life events, generally. They have benefitted greatly from the group and/or individual counseling they received at the time. They want to help others heal and regain their lives. To this end, they have had intense short term training specifically in this area. You probably won’t find them in the phone book. But referrals can be made at any grief support group. Sometimes a funeral director or the secretary at a house of worship can suggest someone.

People are sometimes surprised to hear that clergy have specialties. Their calling allows then myriad opportunities to serve. But they usually have stronger talents in some areas more than others. Since they can’t possibly do everything, congregants may be tapped for their teaching or organizational expertise, allowing the religious leader to more effectively share the talents given. So if you prefer counseling with a spiritual element, make sure you seek the right person. The recommendation here is that you find a clergy person who has graduated from an accredited seminary and been ordained. Classes in Pastoral Care, and at least 3 units of Clinical Pastoral Education (CPE) are good clues that you have the person you need. Also be aware that it’s easy to find Psychiatrists, Psychologists, and Social Workers who are ordained ministers.

In any case, do your homework. Find out something about the person you are considering. Any one of the counselors listed here will agree to a brief phone interview to answer your questions, give their credentials, let you get to know them a bit. If you get good vibes on the phone, make an appointment. If it doesn’t feel so good, call someone else.

Once you’ve chosen a counselor, what can you expect?

Hard work. If you think that sitting quietly, listening to the counselor a few times, maybe taking a pill, will make your situation better, you’re not on the right track. Think in medical terms for a moment. If you have a serious medical issue, you may have to have surgery. Cuts will be made, organs moved around, something cut out or sewn up, then you get stitched back together. You feel bad for a while, then you heal, get strong, and live well.

Grief is a serious emotional issue. You have to talk about things like the event, your feelings, your failings. You might have to write some things out, talk to other people, look at yourself in different ways. It is exhausting and difficult. But you WILL heal, you WILL get strong, you WILL figure out how to live well, you WILL know joy again. As with anything in life, the good stuff is well worth the effort.

How long will it take? There are too many variables to give a timeline. To do the job right, you’ll spend a few months with a counselor, and at least a year in a support group. After a year on your own, you’ll do it again. After that, when things bubble up – and they will – you’ll seek short term help again. As you mature and gain other life experience, it’s good to go back and review. Then one day someone will call you and ask you to guide them through their situation, and you’ll agree. Both of you will learn things. Both of you will heal some more.

Cost need not be an issue. If you have insurance, be thankful, and take full advantage of options available to you. If you are a victim of current economic events, you need this help desperately. So while you seek financial recovery advice, also seek grief help. Because so many of us are suffering from this, communities are offering group support free of charge. Places of worship are a good resource, with a modest donation asked only from those who can give it (to cover the cost of the extra power used!). Certified Grief counselors are usually dedicated volunteers (Bless them). The important point here is that you not use finances as an excuse to avoid healing.

Now you know. Take a deep breath and GET BUSY!

Shalom.

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