Asheville is known for many things, including adventure and nature, arts and music, food and beer, and rest and recreation. It’s been called “Tree City” and “Beer City”as well as named “best of” on many lists. But what about calling Asheville “City of Counselors”? Or how about “Therapy Town”? For those of us who are counselors here (or social workers, psychologists, and marriage and family therapists), it’s apparent that there are a great many “soul healers” here.
But why are there so many mental health professionals in Asheville? Several local practitioners shared their ideas.
Pia Arrendell, a marriage and family therapist with Asheville Psychotherapy Associates, notes that “a lot of people have moved to Asheville, including practitioners” and that Asheville has “great networking” for those practitioners.
Trip Woodard, also a marriage and family therapist at the same center, says, “Everybody wants to live in Asheville.” He jokes that the town has been “nominated as the top city in the universe.” Woodard also points out that two local schools offer licensed professional counselor programs, which all attract therapists in training. Woodard adds that because Asheville is a “progressive city” with a well-educated population, it may feel like a safe, welcoming climate for many practitioners.
“Coming to Asheville was a calling for me,” says Joy Butler, social worker and director of The Healing Center of Asheville. “Even though I had a busy private practice in New York, I felt I needed to be in the Blue Ridge Mountains healing the folks down here, so to speak. So, I moved here, healed myself, and I then went on to heal others. Hence the name of my business, The Healing Center of Asheville, was born.”
Statistically, there are in fact far more counselors per capita in Asheville than other comparable cities in North Carolina and the region. The National Board for Certified Counselors website shows 83 national certified counselors who were accepting referrals in Asheville. Using data from the U.S. Census Bureau for Asheville’s 2014 population, we can estimate there are 1,059 residents per counselor in Asheville.
Most other comparable cities were nowhere close to that ratio: 2,223 people per counselor in Greenville, S.C., and 3,451 in Durham.
If we include counselors plus other traditional types of mental health therapists, using Psychology Today‘s therapist search site, we find an estimated 312 people for each practitioner in Asheville. Although Chapel Hill was close when this expanded search was used (356 people for each therapist), all the other comparable cities ranged from 599 people for each therapist in Greenville to 1,684 people in Winston-Salem.
Of course, to keep so many Asheville therapists in business, there must be a sizable number of clients. What could explain that?
The mountains of Western North Carolina have historically been seen as a place to go for healing. Asheville has come to be known for the abundance of wellness practitioners here, including yoga instructors, massage therapists, energy healers and acupuncturists.
Woodard says that some people may be drawn to Asheville because of the many options for alternative healing in the area.
Arrendell points out that other factors may be at play as well. In general, more people are seeking counseling because it’s more acceptable in our culture now, she says. And she adds that there could be an economic reason related to the passage of the Affordable Care Act in 2010. She attributes a “huge increase” in clients to the ACA, as many patients can now afford the lower co-pays.
Butler notes that her caseload has also increased since the passage of the ACA.
Arrendell works full time and has within the past month increased to a full caseload. She says other therapists she knows seem to be getting to the point of reaching a full caseload as well.
Is it possible that the large number of “transplants” in Asheville also contributes to the number of clients? Woodard notes that the majority of his clients are transplants, although few of them have moved here recently.
Arrendell estimates that 80 percent of her clients have been from somewhere else and 20 percent from the Asheville area originally, while Butler estimates that 98 percent are from elsewhere and 2 percent are natives of Western North Carolina.
Do transplants have issues acclimating to a new area — the culture as well as the geography — which draw them into therapy? “People coming from the North or the West may have some adjustment issues” living in the South, says Woodard.
Do transplants also have difficulty adjusting because they lack a long-standing, extensive support system? “People want to be part of a community,” says Arrendell, noting that therapists can provide that support.
Woodard echoes that sentiment: “Community is important, and finding a niche in Asheville isn’t an easy thing.” He also points out that people are drawn to Asheville because of its scenery and the beauty of the mountains.
Could transplants have overly high expectations that this beautiful mountain town will solve all their problems, like some type of utopia? And when the reality is far from the ideal, is there a sense of discontentment or frustration that could lead a person to seek counseling?
Woodard says that people want to start over after a major life change, like divorce, and move somewhere new to “hit the reset button.” He adds that some people come here with unrealistic expectations about finding jobs easily, but the “middle class they had hoped for” may not exist, because the cost of living in the area is relatively high.
“People move here for healing; they want a change,” says Butler. “A lot of them are leaving something they don’t like in search of something better. When they get here, they find that their problems follow them. People come here to experience life in a different way, but they’re running into the same issues.”
Woodard also says the idea that transplants may be dealing with “delayed grief” — from losses or failures in their previous towns — has “some credibility.”
Butler agrees, adding that clients may have even sought healing previously but without complete success.
“You can’t run away; you’ve got to deal with it,” she says. “When you get here, the brick wall will appear right in front of you, blocking your way. When people get here, they don’t have any choice but to deal with the more severe issues. Something about the healing energy in Asheville makes it possible to heal.”
Peggy Hustad has been a licensed professional counselor in North Carolina and a national certified counselor for over 15 years. To contact her, visit her blog at besttocome.wordpress.com.