We counsellors are fond of transparency, and I feel inclined to set out my stall early by saying – I’m not a fan of medicalised language in the world of counselling. I’m not convinced that counselling belongs under the banner of ‘healthcare’ or ‘medicine’ at all. This might sound surprising, but it seems to me that counselling could just as easily sit under ‘education’; it is, arguably, more like coaching than medicine, a form of personal development. Or indeed, maybe counselling is just it’s own thing, in its own category.
One reason I’m averse to medical language is down to the people I work with. I regularly ask people why they’ve come to counselling, and most will talk about a stressful situation, troublesome thoughts and emotions, or low personal confidence. It just doesn’t sit right with me to regard this as a medical event, or to focus on ‘symptom management’. To me it’s a human thing, not a medical thing.
Another reason I’m wary of diagnostic labels is because, to be blunt, they’re not as reliable or scientific as they ought to be. It would probably take a large heavy book to properly cover all the concerns about diagnostic labels in mental health, so I’ll not attempt to cover the issue here, but if you’re interested check out this news article outlining how researchers from the University of Liverpool concluded that diagnoses are ‘scientifically meaningless’.
This brings me round to my third reason for steering clear of medicalised thinking: I’m not sure that the medical/scientific approach is the best route to improving our understanding of our mental lives. It’s unfortunate, and maybe ironic, that after a century of scientific research into mental health and mental illness, that we don’t seem to have made much progress. Maybe we’re using the wrong tool for the job. Science is great for gaining information about the physical properties of things, but mental health doesn’t seem to me to be a thing which can be objectively observed and measured in the same way as bacteria or chemicals.
I dare say I’ll come back to these sorts of issues in in later blogs. For the time being however, I am trying to weed out the medical terms which have crept into my vocabulary over the years, and to substitute more normal, “common sense” language. In some cases this is no challenge at all; I find it natural to use words like “distress” in place of “disorder”, or “feelings” rather than “symptoms”. One I am struggling with though is the banner itself; “mental health”. I’m not sure the word “health” is ideal – it has inevitable associations with “illness” – but whilst I’m about it, I’d have to say I’m not too keen on the word “mental” either. If or when I think of a good alternative, I’ll let you know.