Solutions for a Sound Mind

Cognitive behavioral treatment and empathy improve mental health in patients

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LEXINGTON Argentine-native Iris Gutierrez, LCSW, received her Master’s degree in social work from the University of San Luis in Argentina and moved to Kentucky in 2000. “I fell in love with Lexington and have been practicing my profession here for nearly 18 years,” says Gutierrez. Originally serving the Spanish-speaking community in Kentucky state programs, she decided to take her board exam and later opened an independent practice as a licensed therapist.

She transitioned into therapy with the hope of helping others understand that a mental illness, much like a physical illness, is not a choice or a personal weakness, but a legitimate condition that therapy can improve. She applies multiple cognitive therapy techniques, with or without medication aids, to patients with various risks, especially anxiety and depression. “Many of these patients have tried different approaches and visit me when they are desperate for help with common mental issues or personal relationships,” she says.

Patient Population

Because she practices independently, she works with a wider variety of clientele – of many different ages and backgrounds. Gutierrez has remained loyal to her Hispanic patient population because she understands not only their language but also their cultural nuances and needs – which guides her therapy. With a shortage of licensed, bilingual professionals in her field, Gutierrez enjoys the advantage she has to connect to an underserved patient community.

Gutierrez adds, relieved, “It used to be that men weren’t seen in therapy as often, due to social or family pressure. Though I still treat more females, there has been a rapid growth in males seeking help.” The higher risk of suicide among male patients strongly demonstrates the importance of talking to a professional before problems become unmanageable.

Top Triggers in Today’s Patients

Gutierrez explains that society can blame a few notable factors – such as social media – for our collective social isolation. False sense of self and others, triggered by widespread media dependence, kills our drive to make true connections with family and friends. Without long-lasting relationships, individuals can spiral quickly into dissociation and anxiety. She focuses on returning patients to a healthier mindset so they can feel more confident in themselves and their ability to forge meaningful connections.

Cognitive Behavioral Cures

As such, she prioritizes self-awareness when first treating a patient – by determining how perceptive they are about their own conditions. From there, she applies cognitive behavioral therapy, CBT, a type of psychotherapy in which negative thought patterns about the self and others are challenged in order to alter unwanted behavior patterns.

“By practicing CBT, you can learn to change your feelings. When you learn to change your attitudes and feelings, your actions change and become healthier,” she says. Gutierrez admits that it’s not easy work or a quick fix but truly impactful when practiced correctly.

She adds, “We were taught incorrectly 30 years ago when we were told ‘follow your heart’ or ‘follow your feelings.’ In the last couple decades, we’ve proven that your mind can effectively change your emotions.”

For example, without proper awareness, someone with a problematic relationship might expect the other person to change. However, CBT could challenge the patient to examine the relationship problem, identify their triggers within that relationship, and change themselves accordingly. “Once you understand the actions and reactions you have, you can modify your behavior. You have that power,” says Gutierrez.

CBT treatment is currently the most accepted form of mental health therapy independent of pharmaceutical intervention, and gives patients realistic, measurable expectations for progress and a personal responsibility to improve their lives. Patients need to understand that a fixed number of treatments won’t “cure” them; timing varies by patient. Gutierrez cites an eight to twelve weeks program as the typical starting point.

Understanding as First Step

“Understanding” came up frequently as Gutierrez’ solution to coping mechanisms in interpersonal relationships. The patient drives their own success story when they acknowledge that they need to work toward new approaches in conflict resolution, building self-worth, and forming new relationship patterns.

Relationship problems, she says, are not isolative – they affect many involved individuals and often stem from an unmet need to be understood. Gutierrez emphasizes the significance of trust in therapy, even while other interpersonal relationships are failing. “It’s important to trust someone who is going to help you help yourself,” she says.

Gutierrez builds that intimacy by proving herself during the consultation. She starts by helping patients see their strengths and gives them motivation to solve their problems. As a therapist, she knows how scary the first visit can be: “Sometimes it’s easier to keep following your old patterns.” But at what cost?

…And Misunderstanding

Therapy as a medical treatment has been overlooked too often by other medical professionals. Gutierrez makes it clear that just like in other practices, a mental illness can be diagnosed and treated, and patients find hope through therapy.

“Patients don’t compartmentalize mental and physical health as doctors may do. If we want to do our most effective work on patients, we all have to work together,” she advises the community.