What is Counseling About? Problems in Living, Meaning of Life, or Mental Health?

May 17, 2017

Brad Hambrick

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Brad Hambrick

Have you ever noticed that when people debate about counseling it doesn’t always sound like they’re talking about the same thing? While it’s easy for all of us to fall in the trap of having different conversations about the same subject, this is particularly true when we are discussing a word with as many meanings as the word “counseling.”

The reality is counseling is a word like “dog.” It has a very broad semantic range, meaning everything from “poodle” (a cat that barks) to “Great Dane” (a horse that people allow to live in their house). Counseling can be informal (every helpful conversation) or very formal (a conversation initiated when one individual’s personal and social resources are overwhelmed by a particular struggle and they seek someone with expertise in their area of struggle to guide them).

My goal in this post is not to address what level of formality is best for counseling or, more accurately, better for a given counselee. That is a subject I explored in chapter 15 of the Biblical Counseling Coalition book Scripture and Counseling (relevant excerpt here).

Instead, my goal in this post is to examine the broad areas counseling can cover. In teaching counseling students to think through what a given counselee is asking for or needs in a given counseling relationship, I have found these three categories to be helpful:

  1. Problems in Living
  2. Meaning of Life Questions
  3. Mental Health Concerns

Problems in Living

Sometimes the focus of counseling is on the choices and underlying beliefs/values of the counselee. A counselee recognizes that one or more areas of life are not going well. The disruption becomes significant enough that they decide that an assessment of their choices/beliefs/values needs to be made and that the subsequent changes will be “worth it” (motivation occurs when the status quo is perceived to be more painful than change).

This type of counseling might include improving marital communication, learning the best ways to respond to an addicted family member, understanding how to most effectively parent in a blended family, honoring God when anger is intense, or resolving guilt over choices for which someone feels great regret.

Meaning of Life Questions

Other times, the focus of counseling is on how to make sense of life in light of some hardship, transition, or unrelenting question. A counselee may face the death of a loved one, a mid-life crisis, or a dilemma about whether they truly know what it means to love. While a counselor may recommend changes in the counselee’s beliefs, values, or choices, the focus of counseling is more on the overarching meaning of life (e.g., more worldview-level than practical).

Mental Health Concerns

Still other times, the focus of counseling is on disruptive experiences, such as flashbacks after a trauma, difficulty discerning reality from fantasy in one’s thinking, a chronic obsessive-compulsive pattern, or a disruptive-elevated mood marked by grandiosity and impulsivity (mania). In these areas, while choices and beliefs will play a significant role in any remedy, there are good reasons to believe that the origin of the disruption is occurring at a level of personhood other than volition (choice) and cognition (belief).

For the moment, assume these are three distinct (overlapping like Venn diagram, but with significant area of non-overlap) areas of personal struggle. Based on this assumption, let’s ask two questions.

  1. Question: Which of these three areas does counseling focus on?
    Answer: Yes (all three), and it depends on the needs of the counselee and training/experience of the counselor.
  2. Question: What happens if we treat these three areas as if they were all the same?
    Answer: We hurt people, even with the best of intentions.

Question One Reflection: All three of these areas can rightly be the focus of “helpful conversations” (broadest definition of counseling), where people seek to find relief from the hardships of life. Any given counselor (formal helping role) is going to be better at one or two of these areas than another. If we are a friend (informal helping role) walking with someone who is struggling in an area where we are less experienced, we should have the humility to say, “I don’t know a lot about that area, but your struggle/question is real and deserves attention. Let’s find someone who knows this struggle/question well, and I’ll walk with you as you seek God’s direction on this matter.”

Question Two Reflection: Notice the phrase, “with the best of intentions.” I do not believe that therapists or pastors – nor lay people from a biblical or psychological perspective – intend to offer unhelpful (possibly harmful) advice when a life struggle is incorrectly categorized. But even with that benefit of the doubt, let’s look at what happens when we place a given struggle into a category to which it does not belong.

  • When we treat meaning of life questions or mental health concerns as problems in living, we communicate, “If you do and believe the right things, then your soul will necessarily be settled. An unsettled soul is a sign of sin or unbelief.”
  • When we treat problems in living or mental health concerns as meaning of life issues, we communicate, “If you rightly understand the big picture, then all the details come into focus and individual choices become clear. An unsettled soul reveals that your functional theology is in error or incomplete.”
  • When we treat meaning of life questions or problems in living as mental health concerns, we communicate, “Your life struggle is ‘happening to you’ when, in fact, the primary contributor to the struggle is your choices, beliefs, values, or conceptualization of what makes for a satisfying life.” We offer comfort that contributes to passivity in the area(s) that our friend needs to change in order to experience the lasting peace and joy they desire.

If you are intrigued by this post and want to explore these concepts further, I would commend the book Saving Normal where Dr. Frances warns against the unintended consequences that have arisen with the over-medicalization of problems in living and meaning of life concerns. If you are intrigued, but not enough to read a 300 page book, consider this post where I interact with the quote below from Saving Normal by Dr. Allen Frances.

“Mental disorders should be diagnosed only when the presentation is clear-cut,
severe, and clearly not going away on its own. The best way to deal with the
everyday problems in living is to solve them directly or to wait them out, not to
medicalize them with psychiatric diagnosis or treat them with a pill. Prematurely
resorting to medication short-circuits the traditional pathways of restorative healing
– seeking support from family, friends, and the community; making needed life
changes, off-loading excessive stress; pursuing hobbies and interests, exercise,
rest, distraction, a change of pace. Overcoming problems on your own normalizes
the situation, teaches new skills, and brings you closer to the people who were
helpful. Taking a pill labels you as different and sick, even if you really aren’t.
Medication is essential when needed to reestablish homeostasis for those who are
suffering from real psychiatric disorder. [However,] Medication interferes with
homeostasis for those who are suffering from the problems of everyday life” (p. 32).

Questions for Reflection

Which of these three types of struggles are you most comfortable counseling? What is an example of when you may have categorized a counselee’s struggle in your area of greatest comfort when that was not the best way to understand their struggle? How do these categories help you discern the best way to serve a new counselee who comes to you for guidance?

Brad Hambrick

About Brad Hambrick

Brad is Pastor of Counseling at The Summit Church in Durham, NC. He also serves as an adjunct professor of biblical counseling at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary. Brad has been married to his wife, Sallie, since 1999.