Psychology can harm your mental health in several ways. Some of you may have experienced this. In fact, just last week on Instagram, I posted an experience someone had that illustrated of type of this harm (more on this later). Now, don’t get me wrong, I know that psychologists are there to help, and certainly, not all psychologists will hurt your mental health, but some definitely do. I want to explore how I’ve seen psychologists hurt the mental health of others, even in spite of their best intentions.
Psychologists Harm Mental Health Through Believing Mindfulness Is a Cure-All
Mindfulness is very in-fashion right now, and yes, psychology (and psychiatry) fall victim to fashion just like every other industry. In spite of the fact that mindfulness as a practice has been around for thousands of years, you’d think that psychology just discovered it the way they tout its new brilliance.
Some of you may remember that I took a mindfulness meditation course a few years ago. I learned all about mindfulness and used it as meditation every day for more than six months. I found no benefit to it. And that’s okay. No matter what the treatment, it doesn’t work for everyone. In my experience, mindfulness meditation works best for those who suffer from stress and some kinds of anxiety.
And, of course, mindfulness itself is broad-reaching. Mindfulness is a way of approaching everyday life. It’s a way of watching your thoughts go by without judgment. And, yes, I use a form of it as a coping technique. That said, it certainly doesn’t address the underlying bipolar disorder in any way for me.
The harm to one’s mental health comes when psychologists tell you that it should address and even fix your mood disorder. Mindfulness should help with depression, says the psychologist. Mindfulness should help with bipolar disorder, says the psychologist. Then, when it doesn’t, the patient is left feeling defeated and deflated, especially when the psychologist suggests it’s the patient’s fault for just not being mindful enough.
Psychologists Harm Mental Health Through Trauma-Informed Therapy
If there’s one thing hotter than mindfulness right now it’s trauma-informed therapy (and, indeed, trauma-informed everything). This school of thought aims to shine a light on the fact that trauma can impact a lot of how we act and feel even if the trauma was long ago.
There is no problem with this, exactly. Psychologists harm the mental health of patients when they insist that trauma is causing their issues. A psychologist may then poke at every possible trauma with a sharp stick insisting that it’s harming you today. If you can’t find a trauma to blame, the psychologist might even suggest that you have repressed it.
I’ve written more about the problem with trauma-informed care here.
As with mindfulness, trauma-informed care can absolutely help some people — which is great — but when it’s forced on everyone, it harms people’s mental health.
Psychologists Harm Mental Health by Eschewing Psychiatry
And the issue with both of the above is that all along, the psychologist is often not saying to the patient that he or she should see a psychiatrist. If the psychologist truly feels that mindfulness or trauma-informed therapy can fix basically everything, then there’s no reason to send a patient to someone else, and thus, they simply never do.
Plus there’s the whole notion that believing in the above may override any understanding of a biopsychosocial model of mental illness. In this model (the prevailing model in science), it’s understood that biological, psychological and environmental factors play a role in mental illness. Many psychologists just skip the biological part and thus never refer a patient to a medical doctor.
An Example of a Psychologist Harming Mental Health
Here is an experience one Instagram user, Molly, wrote about:
“. . . I attended therapy for almost 7 full years after developing severe depersonalization at 18. It didn’t work.
“. . . I recommended her [my therapy] to everyone. I still appreciate her and think she has an excellent therapy for the right people, and I do think she helped me in certain ways. But she missed the glaringly obvious, which is that I was experiencing increasingly intense bipolar symptoms. By the end, she told me to apply for disability because the “natural” way that I am, my “sensitivity” and “cycles” are simply incompatible with capitalism. She told me this after I exasperatedly said through agitated sobs, ‘I think what I need is a fucking mood stabilizer.’
“Turns out that is all I needed. Psychiatry has a sordid history. It has a fucked up present, too . . . I primarily see mental illness as something medical. Trauma is real, yes. But so are medical mental illnesses, and there is nothing wrong g with this. I don’t want mental health professionals who are tired up with political ideology anymore. I want evidence-based interventions. It’s infuriating that non-evidence-based methods are used with mental illness (especially w/o informed consent) . . .”
(Read Molly’s entire post and see the discussion on Instagram, here.)
Not to put words in Molly’s mouth, but for seven full years, she was suffering needlessly because of a psychologist and certain psychological beliefs. She is not alone in this. Many people with serious mental illnesses have been hurt by psychology when it has failed to recognize glaring mental illnesses and then refer those people appropriately. And I’ve seen over and over therapists downplay the importance of medication and medical help for their patience. Some psychologists even lean towards antipsychiatry.
Preventing Mental Health Harm by Psychologists
Any psychologist worth their salt, shouldn’t be like this. In fact, if your psychologist has any antipsychiatry leanings, you probably should find a new one. This is because a balanced perspective is incredibly important; and, you want to know that, should the time come, you will have a person who will appropriately refer you for medical care. It’s not that psychology doesn’t help people — it does — but it’s considerably more effective when it works hand-in-hand with medicine, not fights against it. And if you have a serious mental illness like bipolar disorder, you absolutely need medical help and thus need a psychologist in your corner who supports that.
Additionally, not all therapists match all patients. If your psychologist leans too much toward a certain type of therapy that doesn’t work for you, they’re not a good fit. For example, if a therapist is “trauma-informed” to a great extent, that might work well for a person dealing with trauma but not well for a person who is not.
So pick and choose your therapist wisely. A great psychologist can be a life-saver, but just like a bad psychiatrist can absolutely hurt you, a bad psychologist can hurt your mental health too.
Image: https://pixabay.com/en/users/SerenaWong-3060442/, CC0, via Wikimedia Commons.