Helping Clients Deal with Today's World

01/19/2016 9:38 AM | Lee Richmond

Psychotherapy depends on the fact that human beings react not to the facts or to experience per se, but to the meaning of these facts as they interpret them; so I’d say that psychotherapy is an effort to change people’s meanings from negative to positive through relationship with the therapist.

-- Jerome D.  Frank, Professor of Psychiatry, Johns Hopkins Medical School

When I looked at the headlines in the news today, the list that follows is what I read.

  • Desertions deplete Afghan forces, adding to security worries.
  • Asia stocks subdued after retreat in Europe, oil stays bearish.
  • Court acquits ex-Vatican official in money smuggling case.
  • Zika virus scare spreads as Brazil gears up for Carnival, Olympics.
  • Al Qaeda names fighters behind attack on Burkina capital.
  • Jail to Jihad: Indonesian prisons a breeding ground for militancy.
  • As U.S. marks MLK holiday, daughter says his dream not yet realized.

     Not too bad, I first thought. Today there are no threatened nuclear attacks, no new ISOL threats, no hijacked airlines, no mass killings…a good day.  Then I listened to what I was telling myself.   How can I call it a good day when racism still exists, when jihadists are becoming more militant, when Al Qaeda boasts about killing 29 people, when a religious official smuggles money, when markets crash around the world and when there is little to no security in Afghanistan.  I realized that I thought it a good day, only because the news is usually much worse.  Today’s world is filled with uncertainty at best, and terror at worse.  It is no wonder that last year, when on sabbatical I conducted a survey of school counselors in Maryland as to what were the current issues most bothering children and adolescents. The most bothersome issues for which they (the counselors) would need further training were trauma and anxiety. Not a surprise when the world is filled with so much uncertainty.

     Jerome Frank, speaking to counselors not long before his death had this to say, “Uncertain about the future, you lack your sense of mastery.  You feel that you are a victim of events. These are the emotions we all treat in psychotherapy. These emotions of anxiety and depression that most, if not all of our clients complain of, are at the root of demoralization and resentment.  Because the world is not treating me will, I feel helpless!”

      Jerome Frank was saying these things years ago. I had the opportunity to hear him speak at Hopkins.  But fortunately I also heard him speak of the antidote, which is helping the person, particularly the child, feel secure, valued and appreciated for whom the person is. Frank did not stop there. He talked about the importance of consistency, the importance of the predictability of that constancy, of being valued and appreciated, and he spoke of giving clients some activities that allow for a sense of responsibility and control.

    Frank mentioned that during World War II, children knew that Dads that were not serving in the army did duty as air raid wardens, and neighborhood patrols.  In reality, they could not stop bombs from falling, but they were doing something to give communities a sense of some control.  Later, during the cold war, there were again air raid drills and school children were told to sit with their heads down in “secure” spaces in school so that they would stay safe.  Of course there is no safety during a nuclear attack.  What was said was not true, but the “white lie” gave kids a sense of responsibility for self, and some sense of control.

    Frank defined mental health as the ability to withstand suffering and stress. An impossible task when there is neither consistency nor control: when most of the news of the world blurting boldly from our television screens shouts that we have no control.  But that too is a lie, and far more negative a lie than the “white lies” told to children years ago.  There is always something we can do to make us realize our importance to self, family, civic organizations, and, in the case of children, schools. We can learn to take responsibility for our immediate environment. Alone, we can’t change the world, but we can change the block on which we live, the place in which we work, the school in which we learn. If nothing else we can make it cleaner.  We can, together, take responsibility for demanding our news networks report good news in equal time with the bad and the scary.  We can be better and healthier people by being prudent about what we eat, how much we exercise and sleep. Good physical health lends to a sense of control. In the end we can at least be consistently responsible for managing ourselves.

   After teaching school counselors for many years, this I say to myself and to colleagues. Yes, learn what the research says about affect management and executive functioning in management of anxiety and trauma. These things are important, but it is equally important to heed the words of doctor Frank as paraphrased here. Good counseling is dependent on the fact that human beings react not so much to facts or to experience per se, but to the meaning of these facts as they interpret them. Therefore, we can help ourselves and others take control instead of harping that things are out of control. It may not be the whole truth, but I believe that my world and the world of my clients would be the better for it.

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