Monday, November 24, 2014

Wants and Needs

As higher education institutions have adopted business models a customer service orientation toward students has taken root. This is not always a bad thing. It helps faculty and staff stay on their toes and work hard to address legitimate needs of our consumers. It can serve to market the school well and also to advance its image and brand.

As with most things, however, there is a pernicious shadow to these trends, one that is anathema to college mental health which is all about addressing the needs of students. But customer service many times becomes more about satisfying wants. This in turn has created a phenomenon in which those around a student, such as parents, faculty, staff, administrators, and other stakeholders, have taken on a positively entitled, demanding posture concerning something they think should be done for a student. Sometimes there may be a positive basis for the expressed want, sometimes not.

Counseling and psychotherapy is about an individual's need to change something about themselves, something that is contributing to their own unhappiness. The things which need changing are determined by a trained professional, working collaboratively, who evaluates the individual's needs. Many times, early in therapy, clients focus on their wants and not their needs, but this is what may have led to the cultivation of life problems in the first place. Wants are often about being comfortable, while counseling, at least in the beginning, will entail a degree of discomfort. Lasting change is rarely if ever a comfortable process.

So we may face scenarios in which insisting on wants may actually lead to harm for a student, and therefore represent an abuse of counseling services. This we are obligated to prevent or stop altogether. Just as no one can dictate how a physician treats your ailing kidney, no one can dictate how psychotherapy is to be conducted (though insurance companies try to do this all the time). It is unhealthy for anyone to attempt to control what ought to be a collaborative working relationship between client and therapist. Counselors are obligated to uphold standards around this issue, so don't be surprised when they say "No." Of course, folks can seek other opinions elsewhere, where it it will be less convenient and more costly, if they like. Or they could give it several sessions first, say five or six, and then make judgements about the effectiveness of therapy after the discomfort begins to wane.