Does Counselling and Psychology Pathologize the Individual?

Medicine Moves: 5Rhythms Movement Psychotherapy and Counselling Services

Victoria, BC

Does Counselling and Psychology Pathologize the Individual?

Having been a counselor for 25 years, I have noticed a shift in how I see the field of counseling and the study of psychology.  That shift has involved moving away from seeing the client as someone who has something “wrong” with them to seeing them as being more sensitive to a disconnected, competitive, polluted, materialistic and fearful environment and “culture”.  The way the modern world has changed so dramatically since the industrial revolution has put an exponentially increasing pressure on individuals to adapt to their environment.  The theory of evolution with its “survival of the fittest” mantra emphasizes survival.   I am not convinced that individuals who are most successful in a toxic, uncaring, short-sighted and self-absorbed environment are the ones we should be cheering for to propagate our species.

At times in our lives we have all been told to “toughen-up”, “suck-it-up”, “don’t cry”, “don’t complain”, “get over yourself” as a response to our deeper wisdom that something is wrong or unhealthy in our external world/environment.  After a while when we keep mentioning the “elephant in the room” and no one else wants to talk about it, we stop mentioning it and eventually we stop seeing it. Historically, the main institutions for control of the populace have supported that notion.  Religion, government and schools all advocate or threaten compliance to their doctrine, dogma, policy and ideas of “truth” while often times flagrantly disregarding their own codes of conduct (dishonest politicians, clergy who sexually abuse, wars for economic gain etc.)  The human individuals are left to try and survive and idealistically thrive in this environment of oppression, brainwashing and moral gymnastics.  When ultimately we cannot succeed to thrive in this environment we face a crisis in belief.  During times when these institutions cannot answer the questions and disappointments that they create, we seek guidance and help.  If our relationship ends, if we lose our job, if our mood and feelings cause us on-going distress, if we develop sickness and disease, if we act out violently, and if we develop unhealthy coping mechanisms that become habitual and problematic . . . we get stuck and in our stuckness we turn to a counselor for help and guidance.  The dominant cultures and institutions support this approach as it pathologizes the individual for not being able to cope with these life dilemmas instead of acknowledging the many other factors that contribute to human suffering other than what the individual brings to the table.

What do counselling and psychology have to offer?  The answer to that is not straight-forward or consistent as there are many theoretical frameworks that guide individual counsellors and even more modalities/techniques of counselling that we use to help people.  I do believe that all too often counselling, in general, only scratches the surface of the nature of reality for the client.  Counsellors who use “Brief Psychotherapy” or “Solution-Focused Psychotherapy” are mainly interested in not talking about the elephant in the room but in how the individual can learn to tolerate and cope with the elephant and hopefully not get squished or step in a big pile of elephant  $%&*#$!  Counsellors who are employed by an “employer- funded” Employee/Family Assistance Program (EFAP) or insurance companies are subtly and not-so-subtly pressured to use as few sessions as needed to get an employee back to work.  So the goal of counselling then becomes about returning to work and not the deeper issues and multi-faceted factors that contribute to most people’s problems.  What if the job, work environment, colleagues, supervisors, corporate behavior, wages/benefits are part of the main problem for the individual?  Here is a radical thought . . . “What if spending 40 plus hours in an office, with unnatural light, poor air quality, doing less-than-meaningful tasks for a company/organization or government that is doing harm to individuals, communities or the environment is the major cause of a person’s “dis-ease”?  What if behaving in ways that are in conflict with one’s values, morals and ethics are generating so much stress that someone can’t cope well anymore at work?  (Anyone just about ready to yell out those old familiar refrains of “suck-it-up” or quit complaining” yet?)  Anyone who chooses to opt out of this “matrix” of materialistic, consumer-culture competition gets to be marginalized  and stigmatized, in society, as sick and weak and are deemed to be lazy or even immoral for not pulling their weight.  On the issue of morality, from an environmental perspective at least, the modern-day hunter-gatherers are the most moral people on the planet (well at least in the modern industrialized world).  They consume the least amount of resources due to their poverty. They reuse, recycle and are very resourceful with what they have in surviving in an environment of scarcity.  Repeat this to a CEO of a big corporation and they might laugh at you.  Maybe your own family might as well.

The canary in the coal mine analogy is appropriate to this topic.  Before the advent of modern day technology to detect noxious gases in mines, miners used to lower canaries into the mines first to see if they would die or not from the existence of any noxious gas.  No one ever suggested to the canary that it should not have died from the gas or that it should suck-it-up or toughen- up.  I might suggest that the most vulnerable people in our society (homeless, mentally ill, sick) are the most sensitive people in our culture and that their sensitivity should be respected and used as a stark warning about the health of our natural environment as well as our social and political structures.  The word sensitive is defined as delicate, conscious, knowing, precise psychic, tuned-in and understanding.  The opposite for sensitive is heartless, indifferent, insensitive, numb and unfeeling.  Are these the “qualities” we truly want to value and promote in our society?

As counsellors I believe it is our responsibility to name the “elephants in the room” each and every time we are supporting and guiding our clients through their life’s journey.  To not name it, to not acknowledge it and to not validate that reality for ourselves, our clients and our fellow humans makes us complicit to the suffering that touches everyone.  To not name the elephant in the room is the real sign of insanity.  To perpetuate the delusions/illusions that our collective way of living on this planet is healthy and sustainable is unethical and unprofessional.

To model, advocate, lobby and affect real change that shifts our current way of being on this biosphere is a responsibility that I believe we all have, especially as professional helpers.

We can aspire to heal people and prevent illness, not just treat symptoms of a never ending dis-ease.  Ultimately, if we do our profession well, we will make ourselves obsolete.   I look forward to that day.


Be well,

Jim Kragtwyk M. Ed, CCC, ICADC

Medicine Moves Movement Psychotherapy and Counselling Services

Victoria, BC

Category : Counselling Posted on August 19, 2009

2 Comments → “Does Counselling and Psychology Pathologize the Individual?”

  1. Anonymous
    8 years ago

    I hope this was a very interesting post thanks for writing it


  2. Abraham Bohlke
    7 years ago

    I like the way you put out things. It would be nice to read more posts from you. Bookmarked.


Leave a Reply