Reimagining Therapy: how "healing" makes it worse

Words matter and the words we use have significant weight. And this blanket statement is applicable to day to day life situations, but let's delve on how this would impact mental health. 

The terminology used by professionals and clients alike can deeply influence perceptions, expectations, and outcomes. One such word is "healing." Traditionally associated with the process of recovering from physical injuries or illnesses, the word "healing" when used in therapy can be misleading and sometimes even counterproductive. 

The word "healing" originates from the Old English *hælan*, meaning "to make whole, sound, or well." In medical contexts, it often implies a return to a pre-disease state—a complete and sometimes effortless recovery. This connotation carries with it an expectation of a definitive end point: the absence of ailment. 

When applied to therapy, the term "healing" suggests a similar definitive resolution to mental health challenges. This can be problematic for quite a few reasons:

1. Mental health issues often involve complex interplays of biological, psychological, and social factors. Unlike a broken bone, conditions like depression, anxiety, or trauma do not have clear-cut "cured" state. Suggesting that one can simply "heal" from such conditions misrepresents the ongoing and often fluctuating nature of mental health difficulties.

2.  Each individual’s experience with mental health is unique. The process that works for one person might not be as effective for another. The idea of healing can impose a uniform expectation, which does not respect these individual differences or the personal pace at which progress occurs.

3.  The implication that one should be able to heal—akin to recovering from a physical ailment—can add undue pressure on those undergoing therapy. It might lead individuals to feel inadequate or guilty if they do not meet the expected benchmarks of recovery, potentially worsening their mental state.

The use of word "healing" in therapy does not just misrepresent the nature of mental health difficulties; it can also inadvertently perpetuate systems of injustice:

1.  The concept of healing assumes that everyone has equal access to the resources necessary for recovery. In reality, socioeconomic status, race, culture, and geographical location all significantly influence one's ability to seek and receive help. Thus, framing mental health recovery in terms of healing can ignore—and even exacerbate—existing disparities.

2.  Different cultures understand and approach mental health in varied ways. The Western model of "healing" may not resonate with or be appropriate for other cultural contexts, potentially alienating those whose views of mental health are different.

3. For communities that have experienced historical injustices and traumas, the notion of individual healing can be seen as a way to place the responsibility of recovery on the individual without addressing the systemic issues that contribute to psychological distress. This can divert attention from the need for structural changes and perpetuate a cycle of oppression.

Considering the limitations of the term "healing," it is worth exploring alternative language that might better encapsulate the process of therapy. Terms like "coping," "adjusting", "adapting" or "engaging" with mental health challenges can provide a more accurate and less deterministic perspective. These terms acknowledge the ongoing dynamic nature of mental health, and respect the diverse experiences and backgrounds of those seeking help.

While the intention behind using the term "healing" in therapy is often well-meaning, its implications can be misleading and inadvertently harmful. It is crucial for mental health professionals and the community at large to be mindful of the language they use. By adopting terminology that more accurately reflects the realities of mental health challenges and respects the individual's journey, we can foster a more inclusive and effective therapeutic environment.

In reconsidering the language of therapy, we are not only enhancing the dialogue around mental health, but also contribute to a more just and equitable society. Thus, it is time to shift our discourse from "healing" to terms that honour the complexity and uniqueness of each person's mental health journey.