Shopping Around in the Mental Health System

Svilen MilevWhen I go grocery shopping, I rarely stop at one store to buy all of my items. I often “cherry pick” by getting all meat from one store, my fresh produce at another, and then my dry goods at another. By the end of the week, I’ve been to about 3 stores total. Can you relate? Sadly, many families within the mental health system must act in the exact same way. 

The mental health system seems to be one of the most complex systems in the world. There is always something getting in the way of proper treatment such as policies, state laws, high turnover which leads to reduced number of staff, high costs, little to no insurance coverage, etc. Families today are up against the biggest beast in our modern day society. Despite high numbers of severe mental health need (7.7 million suffer adults and 20% of children and teens suffer from severe mental illness), we have multiple problems within our system that often include incompetent or uncaring workers who waste the time of families in need. As a therapist, I see these things almost daily.

There are 7 types of workers, I have encountered, that all individuals should look out for:

1. The lazy worker: This type of mental health professional refuses to go far and beyond their duties at work. If it is after hours, they will not help you. If helping you means contacting outside agencies, researching a problem, or discussing something with you, this person will avoid it at all costs. They might even shift the responsibility to the client or family of the client. You may not feel helped or cared for by this person. They are incompetent, disinterested in truly helping, and may only be in the profession for recognition, personal identity, pay, or prestige. Some people thrive off of having a hand in telling others what to do or having some effect on their lives. Those who enjoy making a difference are different because they are truly interested in helping. But the “lazy worker” will do nothing, but want to be recognized.

2. The “for show” worker: This person is like the lazy worker, but might do more work for the purpose of being recognized. This person is constantly in competition with co-workers and will often appear genuinely interested during the initial phase of treatment. This person is selfish and hopes to find an identity by working in the field.

3. The “professional” worker: This person is so very professional and loves to dress the part, act the part, sound the part, and fantasize by getting overly involved in the lives of others. This person is so consumed with themselves that no one can crack the phony fasade. This person is basically a narcissist.

4. The “let me check” worker: This person is like the lazy worker, but constantly has to double check facts (even basic facts) because they are rarely tuned in to their job. This person knows very little and seems to lack a breadth of knowledge necessary for the duties of the job. Therapists like this are constantly unsure about their position or how to help. They need others to guide them before they can guide others. There is very little to no creativity with this person. A person like this might also lack life experience. Beginning therapists usually fit this profile.

5. The “actor” worker: This person is very much like the “professional” worker but seems to recite what others have said or done. This person is an imitator and lacks originality. Dressing, speech, behavior, activities, suggestions, or advice might be echoed from someone this person idealizes such as a boss, senior worker, or historic figure. Tone of voice, attitude, or dressing might change to reflect the characteristics of the idealized person. I would go so far as to suggest a sociopathic personality.

6. The “ingenuine” worker: This person is very ingenuine and doesn’t really care about the emotional needs of the client seeking help or the client’s family. This person is highly engulfed in his/her own life, but believes their personal experience will make them a good therapist. This person usually lacks true compassion, but is the first to believe that they have skill (because of personal experience) to help others.

7. The “social justice” worker: This particular person is very conscious of social justice issues and seeks any opportunity to bring up the topic of sexism, racism, ageism, etc. to explain away personal difficulties or challenges the client may face. For example, a woman may say that she feels undermined by other females at work. The “social justice” worker may view this as an attack due to age, gender, or race. Of course, this is something that happens all the time, but we cannot explain away ALL situations using this perspective.

Believe it or not, the field entails many of these individuals including a host of other personalities. It is important to keep in mind that not all mental health professionals or therapists exhibit these traits in negative ways, but many do. The thing to watch out for is how rigid the person is and whether or not they truly care for you or your loved one. “Shopping around” in the mental health system is important because every therapist is different, every therapist is trained differently, and every therapist has experienced life differently. No one is the same. “shopping around” allows you to find a therapist who truly has you or your loved one’s best interest at heart, truly wants to fight for the rights of her/his clients, and demonstrates a consistent character over time. If you recognize an inconsistent personality that seems overbearing and unauthentic, run!

I wish you the best

Photo credit: Svilen Milev