Mental Health Counseling For Different Populations: Considerations, Challenges, and Approaches

As we develop we become different, our brains grow, our minds mature, and neural pathways split and diverge with every new life-forming event. We are different in values and mentality, and here is the issue. Where a young mind is more malleable and open to new lessons, the old is more solid and less pliable. Neuroplasticity reduces with age, and therapists need different approaches to treat older clients. 

Education is the foundation of psychology, but whether in the classroom or online, a master's in school counseling will prepare you for a single demographic, and a more generalist qualification may not answer all the questions. Therefore it may be worth asking, how does someone’s age define how to counsel them?

Who are The Generations?

As of August 29th last year, Millennials were the most prolific generation in America. Before we get into psychological ins and outs, let’s start by defining the generations, who they are, and what percentage of the US they represent:

The Greatest Generation (0.2%)

Born between 1901 and 1927, this generation has witnessed a lot of hardship. This generation lived through WW1, and the Roaring 20s, popularizing jazz, and revolutionizing social freedoms and change. However the generation would also see the onset of the Great Depression in 1929, and many would live through WWII and the resulting Cold War.

The Silent Generation (5.49%)

Born between 1928 and 1945, this generation suffered through the Great Depression. Many in this generation fought in WWII, which happened from 1939 to 1945. They would also witness the Red Scare, when fear of communism swept America, the effects of which are still being felt today. This generation got its name from its hyperconformism to Senator McCarthy.

Baby Boomers (20.58%)

This generation began in 1946 and ended in 1964. Although now associated with conservative values, the boomer generation was actually characterized by wild rebellion, anti-authoritarian attitudes, the hippie counterculture, Vietnam War protests, and the “Summer of Love.”

Generation X (19.61%)

Generation X are those born between 1965 and 1980. They expanded on the early anti-conformist attitudes of the boomers, living through the AIDS epidemic and MTV culture, which eventually provided the platform of pro-LGBTQI+ attitudes, as well as the Civil Rights movement.

Millennials (21.67%)

From 1981 to 1996, the millennials lived through an age of technological innovation and built off of the social-questioning dynamics of Gen X. Millennials lived through 9/11, the emergence of the internet in daily life, and remember when Amazon was just an online book store.

Generation Z (20.88%)

The babies of 1997 and 2012 are the so-called “Zoomers” of today. Unlike Millennials, Zoomers likely don’t know an age without the presence of the internet or interconnectivity. Though they share some differing philosophies, Zoomers are no less sociopolitically conscious or involved than their millennial forebears.

Generation Alpha (8.4%)

The babies of the generational tree, Gen Alpha started in 2013 and is still the current generation being born. The oldest of Gen Alpha would be turning 11, still facing formative years, though many of them were born into the COVID-19 pandemic, occasionally earning this generation the “COVID Generation.”

Counseling the Generations

Every Generation had to overcome challenges, which by their very nature have had an effect on those Generations’ zeitgeist. Not to mention socio-political ideologies, attitudes, and demographics. While The Greatest Generation is predominantly white, Generation Alpha is projected to be the most diverse generation yet, as the ideologies and push for social equality of the previous two generations colors the attitudes of the emerging.

Therefore, there are several important practices to consider when counseling generations. Fortunately, they are all skills that psychologists need to demonstrate competency in before getting their license, but in today’s rapidly changing and diversifying generations are more important than ever.

Cultural Sensitivity

As the world’s attitudes towards cultural intermingling and diversification thrive, the people of the world themselves become a genetic mesh of the global population. As more and more people discover the joys of intercultural exchange, this inevitably leads to people discovering and celebrating their heritage and the way it has colored their perceptions and personality. 

In therapy, a person’s heritage can be a significant part of their struggles, as cultural paradigms shape biases and perspectives. While the earlier generations lived in an Anglo-dominant society, later generations enjoy greater diversification and expect more cultural respect. This is particularly important with cultural or generational trauma, such as genocide survivors and their families. 

Inter and Intra Generational Support Groups

A 2017 study on counseling older generations found that there is a prevalent feeling among older people that they are misunderstood. The world is changing around them and they are confronted by a new and advancing age. The study found that there was growth to be had both within and without their own generational groups. 

Intra-generationally, older therapy patients gained a sense of security through knowledge of shared history and values, while intergenerational interactions provide a source of “reality testing,” that is, the practice of separating reality from one’s own biases. This approach offers generations both the ability to gain comfort from a like-minded group and be slowly introduced to different or advancing ideas that may otherwise provide a sense of being passed over.

The Role of Technology

Recently, especially since COVID-19 forced the world to accept the convenience and availability of online communication on a previously unforeseen scale, Millennials and Gen Z have united in a combined effort to talk openly about mental illness, the struggles those who suffer with it face, and the stigmatization of therapy. Social Media is no longer merely a tool for talking to friends at all hours, but an efficient method for communities to gather, exchange information, learn, and support one another. 

To that end, technological advancement has not only increased generations’ self-awareness but also allowed them to more readily seek out help through tele-health counseling and doctor’s appointments.

Though older generations may struggle with this tech, it is a superb tool for those with limited mobility, chronic pain, or other conditions that affect a person’s ability to go to physical appointments.

Mental Health and Age

Age demographics are one of the many important factors to consider when counseling a patient. Ultimately, however, the practice is largely the same. Listen, observe, and take into account any personal biases that they may have because of their age. The fact is that although there are common views according to generation, every person is an individual, with individual needs, views, and goals in their mental health care. As long as you’re treating clients with respect and professional ethics, there is little to worry about.