As mental health professionals, we understand the weight our words can hold. If not, think back to a compliment you received from your favorite teacher or a personal dig from a loved one. That is why we go through thorough training, not to make sure we say the “perfect” open-ended questions or reflections to our clients, but to learn how to respond appropriately and empathetically using our bodies and our words. Yet, we might recognize the following examples, or variations of, as phrases we might say to clients who are dealing with poverty:
“If you don’t like the way things are run, go vote”
“You need to follow a healthier diet”
“You shouldn’t let your children watch TV all day”
I’d like to say these phrases are often said by paraprofessionals, but I’ve heard them said just as often by trained professionals in graduate-level programs.
These statements are well-intentioned (you hope), and can come from a place of concern. We might be concerned about a client’s health or concerned about the client’s children. However, these statements can also reflect our values about life and one “should” behave or live. They can also reveal the implicit bias we might have about individuals in poverty. Such biases can include the idea that people in poverty are experiencing these issues due to their own fault or that they are not trying hard enough to overcome these barriers. At worst, these statements can be read as harmful microagressions (or straight up aggressions), and, at best, they can cause a mental health professional to stumble in the building of the therapeutic relationship.
When we say these statements to clients, they can send the message that:
- We are the experts in how they should live their lives
- We have the definitive authority on policy, health, and parenting
- We don’t think our clients could survive without our intervention
- Our clients have not already tried these solutions
How can we learn to recognize these types of harmful statements towards individuals dealing with poverty? First, we can examine what these statements share in messaging. For example, there is an implicit or explicit element of advice-giving. There might also exist an element of misunderstanding about the nature of poverty or of a particular region or culture. Most damaging, there is an underlying theme of judgement with the counselor making a value judgement on the client’s beliefs or behaviors.
Am I saying that you should NEVER give advice? Of course not. However, I am suggesting that there are other ways to get to the same place with clients such as:
- Expressing curiosity about what underlying need the behavior meets
- Reflecting what the client has told you about consequences of the behavior
- Confronting the client on incongruent thoughts, behaviors, or emotions
Most importantly, is it up to you to do the work and understand if the “place” you are trying to get to with these techniques is a place the client wants to be. If the client states they do not want to or are not ready to engage in the act of voting, then it would be futile or even harmful to push your own beliefs about what is “good” or “bad” behavior. We also must recognize that clients in poverty face multiple barriers such as being home-bound and unable to vote or not having the finances or the skills to cook “healthy” (read: “good” or “bad”) food.
With self-awareness of our own values, we can try to ensure we are all providing a safe, nonjudgmental space for multichallenged clients.