College Counseling Myths

by Dr. Lee Keyes

College therapist

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Mental health professionals, of any type, encounter myths and misconceptions in the course of their work. These include myths about the work itself, about therapists, about clients, and about wellness, mental health, or illness. Each professional could probably generate different lists based upon the settings in which they work, such as community clinics, private practice, hospitals, government-funded entities, substance abuse services, and so on. This is no less true for professionals working in college or university settings. It’s probably fair to say that some myths are generic to any mental health professional, and some are unique to the settings in which they work.

This list is compiled from experiences I have had in my 30-year career. It is intended to help current and aspiring college mental health staff members develop their own thoughts about and defenses concerning the many forces that may disorient them or pull them away from an accurate assessment of the purpose and full context of their life’s work. This hopefully will help them remain focused, avoid blind alleys, respond to criticisms and negative influences, reduce unnecessary stress, and perform competently and efficiently with students and others.

The Myths

Number 1: College students are “just the worried well.”

Reality: College therapists see every diagnosis and many students face very severe issues. Due to therapist skill and the protective nature of the college environment, such students may also achieve stability relatively quickly.

Number 2: College therapy is not private.

Reality: College therapists are bound by the same federal or national regulations, state or province statutes, and codes of ethics as all other therapists in the United States and abroad.

Number 3: College therapists are not “real” therapists.

Reality: College therapists are trained and licensed just like all other therapists. Further, they know students and the nuances of campus life much better than off-campus therapists do.

Number 4: We should stop all student crises and medicate them too.

Reality: As all students struggle with developmental turmoil, crises are not only inevitable but necessary. They’re a sign that something needs to change and we should facilitate healthy change, not prevent it. This requires faith in our youth.

Number 5: Therapists should “make” students feel better, or “change” their behavior.

Reality: Just as would be the case for all of us, everything that happens in therapy, including the decision to go, is up to the student. Therapists are responsible for applying their skills competently and ethically for those who choose to try.

Number 6: All students can get better if they want to.

Reality: Not all pathogens are “inside” the student. Some exist or are perpetuated in victimization and trauma, poverty and hunger, families, relationships, groups, organizations, regressive policies and laws, hostile subcultures, and negative spiritual or existential postures. These too must change.

Number 7: There’s “nothing we can do” to influence administrators or funding sources to create adequate support and comprehensive resources for our centers.

Reality: Upper administration meets with and responds to advocates and vendors every day, and not infrequently will create, or allocate, revenue streams into what is prioritized.

Number 8: Outreach and consultation (prevention activities) are “a waste of time” for our centers.

Reality: Therapists are also skilled at “diagnosing” and intervening with groups, organizations, subcultures, policies, etc., which have a direct impact on well-being. Many campus “pathogens” can be more efficiently addressed in this manner, rather than downstream, one-student-at-a-time approaches.

Number 9: All mental health helping should be done in or by the counseling center.

Reality: While the center should take the lead in training, the entire campus community should be involved in helping students. In fact, a great many peers and faculty and staff members already are.

Number 10: All counseling center accrediting agencies are “the same.”

Reality: At 70+ years, the International Accreditation of Counseling Services, Inc. is the oldest, and the only one whose standards were written by counseling center directors.

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