One of the complex topics that comes up when people consider therapy is medication. Often I have new clients who come in with a fear that I'm going to try to sell them on a prescription they don't want, and others may feel comforted by the idea that what they're struggling with could be distilled to a simple chemical imbalance.
The roots of our feelings about treating our relational and emotional selves chemically can be varied, and it's important to feel comfortable with your therapist's beliefs and attitudes around medication.
The Counselor's Role
First of all, Licensed Professional Counselors like myself don't directly deal in medication. We don't prescribe it or provide it. However, as clinicians who care for people's mental health we are required to be educated and aware about medications our clients may be taking, what may be helpful and how it could interact with their treatment in counseling.
In the event that your counselor feels medication could be helpful, they'll talk with you about why and then refer you, most likely, to your primary care doctor to explore your options further, and continue counseling either way.
There are mental health conditions which seem to have a more pronounced neurological component. Bipolar, for instance, is very effectively treated through medication. While counseling can be a helpful part of treatment schedule for bipolar disorder, severe symptoms impacting the patient's mood can struggle to see much benefit without the aide of medication.
Intense and prolonged struggles with depression, anxiety, or other mental health symptoms can be helpfully addressed as well, however it's always important to educated yourself on whatever drug you're considering and being realistic as to what results you may expect.
People often have an impression of how pharmaceuticals work that is different from reality. One professional I know put it this way: think of your symptom (whatever it is) as a candle in the room of your mind. The client wants to put the candle out. We think of psychotropic drugs as being like a snuffer, a precise instrument that targets the flame and extinguishes it.
However that's not where the technology is at. Rather, medication is more like a bucket of water; it is likely to address the issue of the flame, but it quite possibly will do other things as well--some of which may not be worth accomplishing the task.
I'm noticing how people's perceptions and attitudes about the pharmaceutical industry are changing and intensifying. Its place in our society has evolved drastically in our lifetimes. Ads for medications--drugs for anything--exist everywhere. The speed-read list of side effects has become a joke for comedy sketches.
Personally I do find some of the messaging troubling. Recently I've seen more and more ads on social media offering mental health drugs being delivered to your door without an in-person appointment. While this isn't intrinsically bad, what bothers me is what's communicated in so many of these ads.
"Depression isn't normal" ... "You don't have to have anxiety"
True, when these experiences become debilitating and make life unmanageable it is good and right to explore your options for treatment. But we cannot begin to tell ourselves that times of sadness, grief, even anxiety are not something we should experience. Yes we need help through it, but the presence of these emotions is not always a sign that something is medically wrong with our bodies. I would dare to say they are rarely a sign of that.
Personally and professionally, I rarely think of medication as the answer. I acknowledge the reality of biology's role in our emotions, relationships, and inner experience. But I also believe we are so much more than that.
I chose counseling as a career path because I know the power of connection, its ability to help us grow and expand, and to heal us through all that life throws at us. I have seen mine and many others' ability to find within ourselves the resources to thrive in the midst of struggle.
I don't like to think about a world where we are encouraged to medicate away the normal human responses to the realities of life.
Mike Ensley, LPC, is a professional counselor and owner of Comeback Story Counseling in Loveland, CO.