Mental health: What is counseling?

By Hiyawkal Gizachew

“Why would I want advice from a stranger? All counselors do is nod their heads and ask questions.” These are some of the myths people have about the counseling profession. The dictionary describes counseling as the provision of assistance and guidance in resolving personal, social, or psychological problems and difficulties, especially by a professional.

Counseling helps to alleviate mental health problems. It presents a way to gain perspective on behaviors, emotions, and relationships. It also provides individuals with a means to express their feelings and process their thoughts. Essentially, counseling empowers the client to come up with solutions that are suitable for them. Counseling gives people the opportunity to talk about their issues with someone who is objective and non-judgmental. Furthermore, any information disclosed during client contact with a counselor will be kept strictly confidential. Client’s written permission is required before any information about client contact is released to anyone. The counselor cannot even acknowledge to any one that he/she knows the client. However, there are three situations where a counselor is required by law to break confidentiality, and they are as follows: If client is in imminent danger of harming self or others; If there is suspicion of child or elder abuse or neglect; and if there is a court order issued for the information.

In a community where it feels like everyone knows everyone, or knows someone that knows someone, I understand why one would have concerns about seeking professional help, especially from an Ethiopian counselor. However, it is essential for us to understand counselors are required by law to keep everything confidential except for the three conditions listed above.

One might believe that seeking counseling is a sign of weakness. However, it is a sign of personal strength. It takes courage and self-awareness to be able to reach out for help.

How does one know when to reach out for help? There are no right or wrong answers but typically persons come to counseling when their thoughts, feelings, or behaviors interfere with their daily life activities. Examples may include disturbances in sleep, appetite, or employment and/or difficulties in relationships. Periods of prolonged sadness, anger, helplessness, or grief may also be an indicator that one should seek counseling.

Counselors will educate clients about healthy ways to cope with problems and adjust to the world around them. Clients have the right to participate in all aspects of counseling such as developing treatment plans and deciding when to terminate services. Once a client initiates services, s/he can choose to terminate services at any time.

(Hiyawkal Gizachew, Mental Health Counselor at Northern Virginia Family Service, can be reached at [email protected])