The Importance of the Initial Counseling Session

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A few years ago, one of the closest people to me was going through a rough time in her life. She had moved downtown with her boyfriend in an expensive apartment close to her work. A few months later, she decided that she was not happy in major aspects of her life; her relationship was not working out how she wanted, she was struggling financially, and was very unhappy in her career. She decided to take the brave leap to change all of this – she ended her relationship, quit her job and went through a stressful hassle to get out of her apartment lease. Although this move was necessary for her to build a happier and more fulfilling life, it came with huge consequences. She was out of work without a back-up plan and had no choice but to move back to her parent’s house, which we all know is not easy.

She was naturally feeling depressed and uncertain, as anyone would during a significant life shift. I suggested that she look into getting a counselor or therapist to help her through this dark time. I didn’t feel that she did had a severe mental issue; the depression seemed completely situational. I figured that it couldn’t do any harm to bounce some feelings and ideas off a neutral party and possibly gain some insight on mood improvement and resources for assistance. I never thought she would go for it, as she is not one to express emotions freely or comfortably, even with me. Surprisingly, she set up an appointment with a therapist. I was convinced that this was a great step for her and would help her realize her potential and thrive in her new experiences.

Unfortunately, the complete opposite occurred. The therapist that she went to traumatized her and she will never return to any sort of counseling again. Counseling could have been beneficial and comforting for her if she was treated professionally and respectfully, as should be expected. In one session, the therapist managed to push her so far out of her comfort zone that accomplishing any progress became impossible. I am not a therapist not a counselor, but I understand that there are boundaries in counseling that need to be respected.

What occurred during that session may not seem like a big deal to many people. In fact, maybe most people would be open to complete the exercises I will discuss. The issue here is that she clearly stated she was uncomfortable and didn’t want to proceed and the therapist continued to insist.

On the day of her first counseling session, she was most likely feeling nervous and uncomfortable, not knowing what to expect and having to delve into personal issues with someone she was meeting for the first time. And understandably so – I would be nervous as hell. Throughout the session, the therapist asked her to partake in deep breathing, meditative exercises. She was asked to close her eyes and completely relax. This is something that one can learn to do over time, but it cannot be expected of anyone to be completely vulnerable around a person that they have never met. Deep breathing and relaxation techniques can be very helpful and have many health benefits, but only if relaxing is possible for the client. In this case, it was obviously not. Closing her eyes and trying to relax gave her extreme anxiety in this case because she had no relationship with the therapist.

It might be understandable for a therapist to probe or suggest such exercises to see if a client may be willing to try it. But it is not acceptable to pressure someone into doing something they have clearly stated they don’t want to do, especially in an initial session. This will deter a client from partaking in treatment at all, because there is no sense of safety or control. An initial counseling session should be simple. The therapist builds rapport with the client – ‘shoot the shit,’ for lack of a better term. The only goal of an initial counseling session is to gain a relationship and create comfort and safety for a client to be able to discuss whatever difficulties they are facing. Causing a client an additional difficulty/stressor is not what should happen.

She ended up leaving the office upset, even feeling violated. She cancelled all future appointments with this therapist. This was her first experience in a therapeutic setting, and it is now completely tainted. I completely understand why she would not want to return to counseling, as it was not only unhelpful, but it made her feel worse. I wonder what kind of progress she would have made had she seen a competent counselor.

If a client with more severe issues had seen this counselor and felt the same way, the consequences could be huge. For example, if the client was suicidal or homicidal and declined further treatment, this could lead to the loss of a life. It is crucial for counselors and people in similar roles to be aware of the impact that they have on their clients and be properly trained to find balance between making progress and respecting boundaries. The importance of the initial counseling session should not be underestimated. Maybe the counselor discussed here was new, nervous or just firmly believed in the benefits of relaxation. Regardless, it deterred someone from getting the help they needed, which is unacceptable and unprofessional. Was this a rare event or does this happen to many people seeking mental health treatment? I sincerely hope that this is not a regular occurrence and that counselors are getting the training required to help clients, regardless of their background, comfort level, personality or any other factor. Everyone deserves to have comfortable, professional treatment if required and, most importantly, to be respected throughout the treatment process.

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