We are pleased to share our first Q&A with Laura Geary Dunson, Licensed Professional Counselor (LPC).
Quiet Storm: What sort of roles does a mental health therapist have? Can you describe your work?
Laura: Mental health therapists can have a range of roles in their work, but most often the job breaks into three areas: individual counseling, family and couple’s counseling, and group counseling. Additionally, mental health therapists may offer education sessions, perform community outreach, or provide consultations on cases. Counseling can happen in homes, schools, or an office setting. Oftentimes counselors specialize with certain sorts of mental health concerns or certain types of counseling. I work as an office-based mental health therapist out of a community center doing mainly individual counseling for a wide range of clients, though my area of focus is trauma. It’s important to note that mental health therapists can also come from a wide range of education backgrounds: counselors, social workers, or clinical psychologists might all work as mental health therapists. While each field has some variations in the way they’re educated, all are held accountable by different licensure boards and are able to provide mental health services.
QS: What prompted you to enter the field?
L: Like many others, I struggled with managing stress and mental health needs throughout adolescence. I watched many of my friends struggle with similar needs and sometimes the only thing that seemed to help was connecting with each other, talking and sharing together and supporting one another. But I quickly realized that as powerful as connections are inherently, sometimes they aren’t enough to manage mental health needs. I needed someone with tools, resources, and understanding to help me manage my needs. When I started studying counseling, I learned how it provided a different sort of support than other relationships. Counseling offered me a place to explore myself and my needs in a way I never knew was possible. This field went on to empower me to better recognize the needs of others. When I realized the power of counseling to face issues of justice and healing, I knew I wanted to be a part of the field.
QS: How does mental illness impact different populations?
L: Mental illness, like physical illness, is incredibly unique. No two people experience the same mental health concern the same way. Everything from environment to attachment styles to coping strategies can affect someone’s mental illness, even in simple ways. But we know that the people who are most likely to experience the most severe mental illnesses are people who’ve experienced the most stress or trauma. It’s intuitive really—the more stress we experience, the fewer resources we have to manage our needs. Because of this reality, oftentimes the people who are most impacted by mental illness are people who are experiencing poverty or people who are disenfranchised due to race, religious beliefs, sexuality, or any other cultural component. This doesn’t mean that a white, cis-gendered, heterosexual, upper-class male can’t experience mental illness, but it means that his mental health needs are going to be a lot different than someone who experiences oppression in any capacity. Above all else, how mental illness affects different populations depends on how an individual defines themselves or experiences culture. I can’t decide how someone’s mental illness and cultural experience interact; that’s up to our clients to explore and decide. For more information, I’d recommend looking to the Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACE’s) study through the CDC.
QS: What similarities are there between different mental illnesses? How do we distinguish between them while also acknowledging their likenesses?
L: One of the most important contradictions about illnesses in any form is how they can be incredibly unique but still hold universal themes. All of us know what it’s like to feel nervous about something—anxiety builds on this universal feeling to create a specific and individualized experience. Mental illness captures some of the themes of human experiences and emphasizes the most difficult aspects. In this way—all mental illnesses are connected. We need understanding of commonalities in mental illness to help inform research and exploration, and knowing that these themes or experiences are universal can be incredibly unifying. However, mental illness is incredibly diverse. We categorize mental illnesses separately because different mental illnesses affect people in a variety of different ways. Even further, people’s experiences of each specific mental illness can also be different. Many people with mental illness will talk about times their experience was discounted because it wasn’t ‘a typical example’ of the mental illness. It’s essential that we recognize mental illness’ diversity and universality as equal truths—by doing so we can recognize informative patterns while still respecting each individual’s story.
Q: What problems currently face those with mental illnesses?
L: Since mental illness can be so specific to each person, the problems they may face can really be unique. But the problems I hear most consistently revolve around stigma. The truth is that there are so many incredibly mixed messages in media about what mental illness looks like. We have representations that demonize or stereotype mental illness, making it difficult for people to feel like they can be open and vulnerable about their experiences. It’s hard to explain to families how anxiety is so overwhelming that it makes keeping a job feel impossible, or how even getting out of bed some days can be a radical act when facing depression. Illness is stigmatized as laziness, as weakness, as attention-seeking—all stemming from a deep sense of communal misunderstanding. But stigma affects every aspect of life, making it harder to meet basic needs, build and maintain relationships, or engage in personal exploration. I’ve even had some clients share how the stigma around mental illness can sometimes feel even worse than the mental illness itself.
QS: What solutions might we, as a community, implement in fighting the stigmatization of illness?
L: Education! Everyone needs to learn about illness in its many forms. The more we learn, the more we can understand and take the burden off of people experiencing the mental illness. With education should come more awareness of our language. The more we use ableist and diagnostic language casually, the more we feed into a narrative that illness shouldn’t be taken seriously. We need to challenge our words. In addition to education, we cannot ignore the importance of political activism. Healthcare (including mental health care) is regularly gutted and neglected in political processes—this will only change if we argue it. Lastly, it’s essential for us to challenge the idea of an ‘Instagram/Facebook perfect life.’ Oftentimes the pressure to be living a perfectly manicured life is emphasized by newsfeeds filled with the highlights of everyone else’s life. It can make living with illness feel even more alienating—with this attitude of ‘my life isn’t anything like what I see everyone else living, I must really be messed up.’ Vulnerability, on a communal level, is transformative.
QS: How can the arts help address or give voice to illness?
L: Illnesses can alienate us and make us all feel like we are separate or even incapable of ever truly connecting with another person. But the more I work in this field, the more often I see how vulnerability is key to overcoming the feelings of isolation that can come with illness. Vulnerability allows us to connect with others, whether it is through or alongside our illness. Art creates the opportunity to embrace a spirit of deep and expressive authenticity, courageously connecting ourselves to the world and building bridges for others to connect in turn. Where the stigma around illness divides, art can reunite. We feel stronger when we feel heard. We feel braver when we feel understood. Through sharing our voice in art, we strengthen and embolden ourselves and challenge the expectation of isolation. We connect, we listen, and we grow together.
QS: Is there a particular book or work you’re fond of for its message(s) on mental illness?
L: Fortunately there are so many that it’s hard to choose. The Things They Carried by Tim O’Brien has a hauntingly beautiful demonstration of the relationship between trauma, stories, and truth. It’s a powerful depiction of how trauma and mental illness can make us feel fragmented and how stories and art can help us feel complete again. Women Who Run with the Wolves by Clarissa Pinkola Estes is just about my favorite book of all time: it explores the many stages of personal growth and change through lens of archetypes and myths. While the book isn’t explicitly about mental illness, it addresses many of the common themes. Man’s Search for Meaning by Viktor Frankl is the foundation for a lot of therapeutic modalities and informs a lot of therapists’ belief systems. The book is divided into two halves: the first is a memoir from Frankl’s experience in the Holocaust as he studied meaning and purpose; the second half theorizes about mental health needs. In our happiness-centric society, Frankl challenges a lot of our expectations on what it means to be healthy. Additionally, Monstress by Marjorie Liu and Sana Takeda is a fabulous ongoing graphic novel set in a fantasy world following a young girl plagued by an internal monster. The vulnerability in her relationship with the monster alongside her own personal growth is a beautiful exploration of trauma and mental illness.