September 14, 2012

Career Justification

In my very first post, I wrote about the difference between psychologists and psychiatrists. Recently, I started thinking about the difference between psychologists and laypeople (i.e., non-psychologists) after a friend asked me why anyone would consult a psychologist. His argument: If I'm a smart person and I know what my problem is, why wouldn't I just work on it on my own? What can a psychologist do that I can't?

This is a reasonable question and it got me thinking about the advantages of consulting a psychologist versus working on your issues on your own. Here are some reasons you might want to consult:

a) Psychologists have fifty minutes per week to dedicate to your problems. This may seem short, but it's a devoted and concentrated period. Left to your own devices, you might ruminate for hours or discuss with friends for weeks, but you're unlikely to sit down to undistractedly confront your issues or problem-solve.

b) Like any professional, psychologists have specialized knowledge, including knowledge of the DSM criteria for validated psychological disorders. Psychoeducation is a huge part of psychotherapy, and you might be relieved to learn that your gruesome intrusive images are a common symptom of obsessive-compulsive disorder, or that during a panic attack, it's normal to feel like you're going crazy.

c) Psychologists have experience working with people whose problems are similar to yours, and so have a good idea of what might and might not be helpful for your issue.

d) A psychologist is someone to check in with. Even if you already know what your problem is and what to do about it, it's not always easy to stay on track. A weekly meeting with a psychologist can act as a strategy session, a check-in, and a one-on-one support group. 

e) Psychologists are trained to notice avoidance, incongruence, and behavioural patterns, and to not let you get away with your BS. So if you never do your therapy homework, giggle when you talk about your suicidal thoughts, or abruptly change the topic every time the topic of your parents comes up, a psychologist will notice and gently address it.

f) Psychologists know techniques and strategies that you don't know or might not have thought of, such as activity scheduling and the what went well exercise for improving low mood; behavioural experiments and cognitive restructuring for testing dysfunctional beliefs; Socratic questioning to ferret out cognitive distortions; mindfulness meditation for cultivating attention and awareness; and exposure hierarchies for addressing phobias.

Psychologists aren't just wise listeners who dispense advice; rather, like any professional, we have specialized skills and training. So in the same way that you might hire a lawyer, a carpenter, or a dentist instead of defending yourself in court, building your own back deck, or giving your kids a fluoride treatment, many people find it helpful to consult a psychologist. Not every problem or every person needs a psychologist, however, and while I've encouraged many friends, family members, and acquaintances to consult, I wouldn't recommend it to someone who prefers to seek help from loved ones or to deal with their issues on their own.

It's your call. 

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