Mental Health: A Conversation with Margaret Brittingham

By: Kathryn Berk

Between running her private practice and caring for her one-year old daughter, Margaret took a few minutes to tell us about her path to becoming a counselor and how therapy can help.

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Can you tell us what inspired you to become a counselor?

I wasn’t really sure what I wanted to do when I graduated college, and I got a job doing street outreach and HIV testing and counseling in New Orleans. The ‘counseling’ was really just filling out a questionnaire of risky habits, but I loved being able to connect with and provide support to people in a scary moment. That eventually led me to getting a master’s in counseling, and from there I got more and more interested in the field -- especially the things to learn about that connect to so many different disciplines, and to the big existential questions of existence. So for me it’s kind of a perfect synthesis between science, art, spirituality, and the beauty and complexity of life.

What is the day-to-day life of a counselor like? What are some of the most rewarding parts of your job? What’s the most challenging part?

I think it really depends on the therapist. I do walk and talk therapy, online therapy, and in office therapy and I schedule my clients around my main job, which is mothering, so my schedule varies from week to week.

The most rewarding part for me is witnessing clients’ healing and growth. It’s pretty amazing. I think the most challenging part is being able to sit with other people’s suffering and simultaneously not shut it out, but also not take too much of it on and have it totally drain me. It’s a delicate dance that I imagine I will be learning for my whole life.

Why do you think there is such a stigma about mental health/ seeking treatment?

That’s a great question. I think a lot of the painful aspects of our internal lives (like depression or anxiety) are really isolating. They make us feel like there is something wrong with us, or like we’re damaged and different than everybody else and then we feel ashamed and our natural impulse is to bury our head in the sand rather than go expose what we see as our brokenness to somebody else.

So I think that is part of it. Another part of it, I think, is that hearing about somebody else’s suffering brings up some pain or vulnerability in us that we have been putting a lot of our energy into not feeling -- so we avoid, ignore or gloss over their suffering and stigmatize it as a very short-sighted way of protecting ourselves.  

I also think we live in a culture where we value self-reliance and perfectionism. You should be perfect and you shouldn’t need any help, and those are the aspects of yourself you should present to the world.  Haha! So those are pretty strong cultural values and messages that I think tend to lead us to bury our pain, isolate more from each other and pretend we’re happier and have it more together than we are and than we do. Then of course our isolation exacerbates our distress and it gets into a problematic cycle...

What’s the biggest myth about therapy?

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The first thing that comes to my mind is that you go to a therapist for them to ‘fix you’. Subtext:  if you go to a therapist, you’re broken, and this other person has the power to fix you. Which is not true!

In reality, counseling is a safe place to become aware of habitual patterns of reacting and to resolve unresolved pain or trauma that is keeping you stuck in patterns that create distress. It can help you discover the link between your thoughts, feelings, and behaviors. In moving our habitual patterns into conscious awareness, we are empowered to choose to act differently. When they remain unconscious, they control us.

There is a lot in the news recently about depression and mental health. What does “mental health” mean to you, and why do you think it’s important to talk about it?

“Mental health” to me means self-compassion and a commitment, or willingness, to become aware of the interplay between our thoughts, feelings, and behaviors -- and by doing so, become a little more empowered to be in a relationship with them that creates peace and not suffering.

I think it’s so so important to talk about mental health because so many of the things that plague us -- depression, anxiety, feelings of inadequacy, low self-esteem, guilt, shame, fear -- their nature is to isolate us and to sow discord in our relationships with ourselves and with others. When we talk about it, we take away some of the channels through which these issues really grow strong, and we realize that these are things we all struggle with at various times in our life and that we can help each other heal. We realize that we don’t HAVE to feel like this forever. When we drive it all underground and pretend it’s not there, no healing can take place.

How (if at all) has being a mother changed how you approach or think about mental health?

Becoming a mom has definitely changed how I think about mental health, in that it really has made very real for me the poignancy of innocence lost that is part of our human condition.

When I look at my daughter I see how innocent and open she is. She radiates a joy for life, and a natural confidence in being lovable and in being loved. She takes other people as they are and she takes her emotions as they come and she is open and full of wonder. It’s heartbreaking to know that as she grows, she will be put in boxes by others’ expectations and she will inevitably internalize some of those messages and at the very least those messages, and quite possibly external obstacles, will move her away from this place in herself that is open and free.

And hopefully, she will consciously make a choice to try to rediscover and reconnect with that place inside of us which is beyond all the habits of thinking and feeling and doing that we have picked up to survive and to protect ourselves, but which also imprison us.

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So I think for me, just being around and loving another human being who is as open and free as a young baby reminds me that this is how we all started out, and really helps me to see that part in my clients.

It also really underlines the importance of the work of facing all the pain that has accumulated in life and that keeps us imprisoned, because now I think about my baby going through this and how desperately I would want her to know that the patterns she accumulates through her life and her suffering are not the whole story, and she really has a fundamental richness too that is beyond and underneath all of that.

What would you say to someone who is on the fence about seeking treatment?

I would say you should totally do it! You know,  if you hate it, it’s not as if you’re forced to keep going. Just try to find a therapist that you connect with and feel understood by and see if it feels helpful.

Different approaches work for different people. What do you like to do personally to focus on yourself and preserve your health?

I love being in nature, like deep in a lush, green forest after a summer rain or on the beach watching the waves break and feeling the salty breeze. Internally, I like to scan through my body and listen to/ feel any uncomfortable emotions or tension or spots of vulnerability and just pretend they’re a vulnerable little child that needs my love and care, rather than my enemy that I must destroy.

Where can I go to find a therapist and learn more about mental health treatments?

I think Psychology Today is a good resource for finding a therapist. I found my therapist there and most people offer free consultations so you can see if they feel like a good fit for you. They also have a lot of articles about mental health and different treatments.

You can contact Margaret and learn more about her services on her website here.


If you are having thoughts of suicide, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 (TALK) or go to SpeakingOfSuicide.com/resources for a list of additional resources.