When it comes to talking about mental health, especially in a therapeutic setting, words matter. And it’s not a one-size-fits-all conversation. In 2007, the American Psychological Association (APA) first released its mental health Guidelines for Psychological Practice with Girls and Women. Those guidelines have just been updated for 2019, and the new approach encourages mental health professionals to "incorporate a strengths-based perspective in their work with girls and women without denying the adversities they face."
This is important because women and girls seeking mental health treatment can often feel dismissed. And being heard and validated is the first step on the path to healing. The first guideline, "Psychologists recognize girls’ and women’s strengths and resilience and work to honor and cultivate these," advises mental health professionals to diagnose sparingly and to instead consider complex emotions as a sign of strength. "Anger, resentment, and other similar emotions can be conceptualized and explored as signs of resiliency and engagement," the guidelines explained. Yes, you have a right to your anger.
Rather than treating women as "broken" or "weak" for feeling our feelings, this new approach (which some mental health professionals are already using) acknowledges the specific challenges women face, focuses on treating women as survivors, and works to cultivate feelings of empowerment. In addition, psychologists are cautioned not to ask women to forgive too quickly, especially in cases where their rights have been violated. The messages of resilience, strength, and survival allow women to be heard. Finally.
"In the medical establishment, historically, there has been a view of females as less than, as victims, as helpless," Lillian Comas-Diaz, a clinical professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at the George Washington University School of Medicine and co-chair of the working group that revised the guidelines, told Rebecca Ruiz for Mashable. "We in psychology also need to add to that a perspective that has to do with the social forces and the history and legacy of discrimination and oppression."
In a world where women are expected to "have it all" and be everything to everyone, feeling harried, discounted, and depleted is normal. It’s important to recognize that these feelings are valid, and having them doesn’t mean that there is something fundamentally wrong with you. The new APA guidelines affirm this, and encourage psychologists to refrain from pathologizing emotions. Instead, mental health professionals are asked to consider contextual and cultural factors, such as fatigue and frustration resulting from competing role demands.
The psychological needs of women are specific to the hurdles women face, and the new APA guidelines represent a sea change in how mental health professionals treat women and girls. And while women are being encouraged to seize their strength, the first-ever APA Guidelines for Psychological Practice With Boys and Men sought to dismantle toxic masculinity and encourages men and boys to be more vulnerable.
Historically, white men have been the sole focus of psychological studies, but until this year, there were no guidelines for how to talk about mental health with men and boys. Perhaps this is because men are the baseline for what’s considered "normal." But, research indicates that the boys-don’t-cry bro culture is toxic. "[These guidelines] draw on more than 40 years of research showing that traditional masculinity is psychologically harmful and that socializing boys to suppress their emotions causes damage that echoes both inwardly and outwardly," Stephanie Pappas wrote for the APA.
Because these recommendations buck the convention that men must always be stoic and strong, not everyone was on board when these guidelines were announced. The New York Times reported that some people suggested that the move away from traditional masculinity is the real problem. However, research indicates that the new guidelines could help more men seek mental health treatment, and that’s a good thing.
Empowering women while encouraging men to be more vulnerable isn’t a threat to outdated and oppressive ideas — it’s a shift towards a more equitable society, where everyone of every gender can be heard. Everyone deserves to seek mental health care without shame or stigma. Period.
If you or someone you know is seeking help for mental health concerns, visit the National Alliance on Mental Health (NAMI) website, or call 1-800-950-NAMI(6264). For confidential treatment referrals, visit the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) website, or call the National Helpline at 1-800-662-HELP(4357). In an emergency, contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK(8255) or call 911.
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