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Everybody’s a Therapist These Days

It seems everybody is a therapist these days — or at least calling themselves that. Our society is so much in need of support in these fast-paced, overworked, multiply-stressed days that we’re seeking help anywhere we can find it. Maybe I’m biased because I live in Los Angeles and I’m used to seeing all kinds of new-age “practitioners” – people who offer “professional services” to change your life if only you had your chakras balanced, your high colon cleaned out, your aura adjusted, your astrological chart analyzed, or a thorough assessment (on the phone, no less) with Miss Cleo and her associates at the Psychic Friends Network. It seems sometimes that we’re surrounded by “therapists”. At a recent trip to the mall, at a gift shop, I was bombarded by fragments of scent from the “aromatherapy” section wafting through the air. I get the idea they’re selling; by smelling different smells, it will have an effect on my mind and body and make me act and feel differently.

I go to another store in the mall, and I find the “massage therapy” section. I see lots of oils, lotions, and wooden tools to alternately stimulate, pummel, and soothe the body. I stop by the news rack outside another store. I flip through a local free “rag” paper, and I see ads for all kinds of “massage therapists” – some “legitimate” (meaning non-sexual, as if sex weren’t “legitimate”; what a Victorian/conservative/mediaeval idea) and some “sensual” (meaning, a thinly-veiled advertisement for sex workers of both sexes).

I drive past the local psychic storefront, where I suppose their “clients” receive “therapy” of a different sort, on the cosmic spiritual level, from Madame Anastasia who can “read your past, present, and future”. I’ve been skeptical of that type ever since I saw Professor Marvel sneak a peek in Dorothy’s basket in “The Wizard of Oz”.

Is everybody a “therapist” these days? Or has that term just been taken over by anyone who wants to align themselves with licensed practitioners of mental health services with letters after their name to capitalize on the sense of prestige that brings?

When I use the term “therapist”, I’m making a lot of assumptions. I’m assuming that that person is licensed by the state (or soon will be) as a practitioner of mental health services, meaning that they have not only completed high school successfully, but have gone on to finish a 4-year (or more) Bachelor’s degree in a related social sciences or health field. I’m assuming that they have continued after that to an accredited Master’s or Doctoral-level graduate school program in psychology, social work, medicine/psychiatry, or counseling. I’m assuming that they have been in practice with regular “clinical supervision”, meaning their work has benefited from strict oversight from a well-seasoned, licensed mentor that can protect the public from inappropriate or even harmful practice. I’m assuming the person knows their theory (and there are many) in psychology, child development, and basic psychopharmacology (use of medications to treat symptoms such as depression, anxiety, hallucinations, paranoia, etc.). I’m assuming that they have studied related topics through some coursework in statistics, sociology, law, public policy, and research that graduate students in mental health programs are taught.

Too often, I think people in the general public, and people living with HIV/AIDS in particular, think that managing the emotional aspects of living with HIV/AIDS merely requires the support of a “good friend”. I have news for you: Your friend is not your therapist. Therapists can be friendly, warm, empathic, even humorous at times – but seeing a therapist is not the same thing as talking to a supportive friend. Therapists are trained for a very long time not only in the theory of how to help people with difficult problems (and just having an HIV diagnosis is difficult enough, even before the physical, social, and emotional challenges that usually layer on top of it), but also in the practice of how to deliver that as a professional service. Friends don’t have that knowledge or skill. Friends don’t go through a rigorous academic program, nor supervised training, a tough state licensing process and mandatory continuing education to “stay sharp”.

So when someone living with HIV/AIDS feels like they need support, I think aromatherapy, massage, and even a keen psychic can all be beneficial, but I think when someone needs a THERAPIST, it’s limited to the meaning of the word I know. Don’t be fooled – not everyone who calls themselves a “therapist” (or social worker, I might add) is really entitled to. Feel free to ask about their academic, licensing, and other professional credentials that qualify them to help you.

As the new mental health columnist for A&U, as a person living with HIV/AIDS, and as a therapist myself, I will address various topics here that someone with HIV/AIDS might find helpful from a mental health perspective. But for now, I’m sniffing my orange blossom essential oil, getting on the massage table, and having a good nap. I have to be rested for when I see my therapist in the morning.

© Copyright 2008 – Ken Howard, LCSW
For suggestions on articles, contact Ken at or call 310-726-HELP(4357)

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