You may not know it, but today is National Psychotherapy Day. You probably won’t see a banner for it your local Hallmark store, but it was started by people I know, and I support it. Let me tell you why.
A couple of years ago, I was scheduled to present a workshop on peacemaking and family ministry at a small Christian conference. Before the conference began, the presenters gathered to introduce themselves to one another. A number of them were therapists; it’s often assumed that I’m a clinician as well, which is not the case. Thus, when my turn came, I quipped, “I’m actually not a therapist; I just play one on television.” It was my tongue-in-cheek way of saying that while I have psychotherapy training and experience, I don’t want to misrepresent myself as a licensed clinician.
Television, unfortunately, sometimes serves up cringe-worthy stereotypes of therapists who are curiously out of touch with reality. How much damage have such stereotypes done? I remember a dinner conversation with a woman sitting next to me at a celebration to honor one of my mentors, a theologian. She was aware that many of the people in the room were clinicians, and eventually got around to asking me what I did for a living. When I told her, she responded as if having an epiphany: “Oh, you’re not a therapist! That’s why you’re so normal.”
And there is, of course, the other side of the stereotype: people who see therapists must be seriously abnormal, possibly downright crazy. In many quarters, psychological difficulties still carry quite the stigma, despite the fact that each of us may be surrounded by friends or family members who are taking some form of psychotropic medication.
Don’t get me wrong. I’m not suggesting that medication or psychotherapy is the cure for whatever ails you. But mental illness, in its many forms, is real, as are the numerous struggles that people face in their relationships. The causes of such problems are many and varied–in part even genetic–and are not simply a matter of moral weakness or failure of will. Part of the point of National Psychotherapy Day is to help correct public misperception and misinformation, so that more people might be able to benefit from a good therapeutic relationship without fear or shame.
Yes, I know: many people have horror stories to tell about the suffering caused by incompetently trained and unethical therapists. I’ve heard many such stories, and they grieve me deeply. But problems exist in every profession, and these stories are not the only ones to tell. Simply put, psychotherapy–with the right person for the right reasons–works. So if you’re thinking of seeking a therapist, it’s important to choose well. Organizations like GoodTherapy.org can help you learn what constitutes competent, ethical therapy, and their therapist locator can point you to possible referrals in your area.
One final note, from my perspective as a marriage educator: if you’re thinking of seeking help for marital difficulties, you need to make sure that you find someone who’s actually been trained to work with couples. When the marriage relationship is the issue, sending one spouse off to individual therapy can be risky, because the therapist only gets a lopsided view of the relationship.
So ask. Have they been trained to work with married couples? How many couples have they worked with? Have they been successful in helping couples get back together? It’s your right to know. If they seem defensive, you may be better off finding someone else. Here’s a registry of so-called “marriage-friendly therapists” to help you get started: these are people who support committed marriage and strive to help couples reconcile whenever possible.
I have been teaching in a marital and family therapy training program for nearly three decades now. It has been my joy to work with hundreds of dedicated Christians who view therapy as their ministry; they are some of my favorite people in the world. They’re out there, and it’s a privilege to stand alongside them and others committed to similar work. Help them and help others by not contributing to the stigma, and by gently pointing people to resources like the links above.