Have you ever been to a sandwich shop to order lunch and thought “why don’t I just make my own sandwich at home?” Then, after eating the sandwich, you think, “I could definitely make a better sandwich myself!” I’ve thought that before. Are there other situations when that type of thinking comes up? Maybe at a theatrical performance, a football game, a church service, or perhaps in an extreme case, an armed robbery (you can imagine yourself doing a better job than the robber or the clerk being held up)? I think it is part of being human for us to look at other people and analyze their performance and then compare our own ability against it. In some cases this might work fine, such as making sandwiches, but there are situations where any such claims of superiority on our part have no foundation to stand on.
One of these situations is counseling therapy. As a student of psychology perhaps I am more sensitive to it, but I see it all the time. I think everyone thinks they are a therapist to some degree. Perhaps counselor is a better term, and likely everyone has opportunity to counsel a friend or relative, so we are all counselors, but there is and needs to be a clear distinction between therapeutic counseling and friendly advice. I joke about psychology being common and everyone being a psychologist because, stated simply, psychology is the study of human behavior. If you are a behaving human you are a lower-case psychologist. But that’s not sufficient when dealing with legitimate psychological pathology.
A common scenario is when a person, having experienced therapeutic counseling by a licensed professional as a client, begins to take on the role of counselor in the life of someone else. This, in my mind, is akin to me saying “I’ve been to the doctor before, I’ll now diagnose my own appendicitis and conduct an appendectomy.” Extreme example for comparison, but relevant. I now hold a Master’s Degree in Psychology, but I am not qualified as-is to function in the role of professional therapeutic counselor. Why? Because my training has emphasized in industrial/organizational psychology, not clinical or abnormal psychology. When it comes to issues of health, it is best to stick with the well-trained professionals.
Think about it for a minute; if you are experiencing depression or anxiety to the point of life interference, would you rather seek help from someone with seven to nine years of specialized school training as well as a minimum year of supervised work in addition to however many years of actual practice they may have, or someone who went to meet with a counselor working through their own issues for a few years? But we don’t usually think about it for a minute, and if we do, we don’t think about it in this way. And if we are the ones finding ourselves fulfilling the role of volunteer therapist, maybe we should also take a minute to think about it and instead of trying to channel our best Sigmund or Carl, just say “have you considered seeing a licensed professional about this?”
I suppose I’m overly sensitive to this topic, but after experiencing the schooling for myself and learning about what kind of learning is involved in training a clinical psychologist I think we would all do a little better to grant the title the respect it deserves. Granted, there are a lot of practitioners that don’t necessarily live up to the ideal psychologist mantle, but there are many who do, and at least they have all been trained. But if within the profession you need to be careful who you meet with, then how much more important is it that you don’t just sit with your friend and play psychologist?
I have an M.S. in psychology, but I’m not qualified to be a therapist, not without a few more graduate level courses specializing in counseling psychology. No amount of personal or life experience makes up for proper training and being up to date on the literature.
I hypothesize that the armchair therapist mentality that pervades society is one of the contributing factors to the overabundance of psychological distress that is rampant in the U.S. and perhaps the world. Depression is predominately a social disorder today, rather than a mental disorder. The symptoms express biologically, and left unchecked it can become deeply biological, but at the onset I believe it is primarily social. The same is true with many of the over diagnosed children’s disorders, such as ADD and autism. But these are just my own personal armchair theories, like I said, we all like to be the armchair therapist, or theorist, in this case. At least I have a Master’s Degree.