Anybody else dealing with poor mental health just think, when I work this situation out or achieve this goal or get into this routine or stop doing this, all my mental health issues will fall away? I know this way of thinking has stopped me from getting help. And I just can’t seem to shake it. I do believe my issues are largely stem from living an unbalanced lifestyle, and that if I would just tweak certain things in my life, I’d be a lot happier and less stressed. I’d prefer changing my lifestyle to telling all my issues to a stranger and being put on strong medication with potential serious side effects. But I’m experiencing a vicious cycle where I need motivation, energy, and mental clarity in order to make the changes, which I don’t have because depression and anxiety have sapped those precious resources. I’m tired of the self-help books, as well. I’ve read so many of them at this point, and they all make the same basic points. They’re all helpful but only to the extent that I apply the advice and wisdom to my life instead of keeping it all in my head. I’ve been feeling more in the mood for novels with high intrigue, emotion, and twists. Something to truly allow me to enjoy and relax, get lost in a different world rather than to constantly examine my life, find it lacking, and spend all my time navel-gazing.
You might know you need to start therapy. You might have a lot of mental health issues you’ve been struggling with for a very long time. You know the sooner you start going, the sooner you will gain a new understanding of the underlying causes of your problems and receive the help you need in confronting them. You know it would be invaluable to gain insight from an unbiased party that doesn’t know you personally, who has had extensive education in the mental health field, who can help you get on the right track to living a satisfying life. However, there are several things holding you back.
You’re scared of being judged. You are incredibly hard on yourself and feel like you aren’t deserving of understanding and empathy from your therapist. While you know from an academic standpoint that therapists are supposed to show unconditional regard towards their clients/patients, you are still worried you will be judged, even if silently. It’s easy to believe that your issues are unique, that nobody could possibly have gone through similar circumstances or feel similar emotions, but all human beings struggle with the same issues at their core. Therapists have almost certainly heard worse, more shocking stories than yours.
You’re scared of giving up control. By expressing your deepest, darkest thoughts and feelings, you feel you will be making yourself irreparably vulnerable. You’re scared of saying something you can’t take back. You’re not used to opening up to anyone. Perhaps even those closest to you don’t really know you. This can be terrifying and definitely takes courage. However, it’s the release of control that can bring about beautiful forward movement in your life and allow you to see the possibilities of how wonderful your life could be. Also, modern therapists are taught client-centric, client-empowering modalities so that the client is always the one in charge during sessions.
You’re scared of being institutionalized against your will. Although you may not be suicidal or violent, you fear that you will seem so crazy to your therapist that they will have you locked away, anyway. In reality, laws are very strict regarding putting someone away against their will. And thoughts of suicide from time to time are actually pretty common, even in those who do not suffer from mental illness. What alerts therapists is if you have a plan such as, “On Saturday afternoon when my family is gone, I’m going to shoot myself”. Likewise, angry, even violent feelings and thoughts towards others are normal, and therapists understand this. I myself have had them from time to time but have never acted in a violent manner. Again, a detailed plan is what would alert a therapist.
You’re scared of affecting other people, perhaps in unforeseen ways. You know that by telling your story, you will inevitably be telling other people’s stories along the way. That makes you feel uncomfortable. You don’t want this to have unintended consequences for anyone else. A therapist is required to keep confidentiality at all times except in very narrow cases — those being if they have reason to believe you or another person is in imminent danger or if they are given a court order (and even those can be fought). Also, it’s important to realize that your story and the stories of others in your life are intertwined. People who have wronged you are especially not owed your silence if it means jeopardizing your own well-being and stopping you from telling your own story. What you tell your therapist stays between you and your therapist. And there are stiff penalties for any therapist who abuses your trust.
You’re scared of the energy it will take to tell your stories and unearth your trauma. It is overwhelmingly emotionally taxing to think about, let alone talk about. You constantly question whether your memories are accurate. You worry you have a martyr’s complex and that you’re simply overreacting. You engage in mental gymnastics to excuse others’ behavior because you don’t want to believe bad of those closest to you. You fear how talking about the sorrowful experiences may bring them to life in a scary way. You don’t want to intentionally trigger yourself. Talking with a therapist (especially a trauma-informed one) is a good way to process repressed thoughts and emotions so that you’re not kept paralyzed and unable to move forward. A therapist’s job is not only to empathize, but also to challenge you. If certain unproductive thought patterns reveal themselves, your therapist will broach them as a topic of discussion to ensure you’re being honest with yourself.
You’re scared of change, even positive change. You have been stuck in the same thought patterns for so long, what opportunities would present themselves if you were well? The possibilities take your breath away. You would have nothing holding you back, and it’s overwhelming to think about. The enormity of it is terrifying. It excites you to think of the limitless possibilities of what you could achieve, how happy you could be, how at peace…but it also kind of feels like the descent on a super-tall, super-steep rollercoaster. Change is definitely scary. Even positive change such as getting married, having a baby, or starting a new job can be stress-inducing. However, with change comes new opportunities and revelations about yourself. Adeptly dealing with change results in a stronger person who more easily adapts to unforeseen circumstances and is able to thrive even amid the chaos often present in the world.
You’re not sure how to choose a therapist. You know it’s important to pick the right one for you, as the therapeutic relationship is the basis for success in therapy. There are a lot of factors to consider. Licensed therapists have at least a masters in mental health or a related field and have gone through internships and supervised practice before sitting for their licensing exams. They commit themselves to a certain code of ethics and are perhaps held more accountable than their non-licensed counterparts. They also use only evidence-based modalities in their practice. But that doesn’t mean competent non-licensed therapists don’t exist. Older therapists might have more experience than younger ones. Certain practitioners have taken additional training in niche areas such as addictions or trauma to work with individuals suffering from those specific issues. If race, religion, or gender is an important part of your identity, it might be wise to find a therapist who shares that same trait. Also, there are many different theoretical orientations which include different therapeutic interventions. Examples include cognitive-behavioral therapy, narrative therapy, and family systems therapy. Lastly, therapists come from different educational backgrounds and worldviews. A social worker will often prioritize the broader, social dynamic of a person’s life; a psychiatrist the biological; and a mental health counselor the personal, emotional.
Is anyone reading this struggling with starting therapy? Or has anybody experienced these concerns only to start therapy and realize it’s what was missing all along? I’d love to hear from you!
According to the World Health Organization, one million people die from suicide every year. This of course does not represent all of those with mental disorders, as the great majority of people with mental disorders do not take their own lives. However, mental illness, even in 2020, personally affecting 1 out of every 5 people (according to the National Institute of Mental Health), largely continues to be a silent epidemic. Much of this stems from the inherent shame mental illness brings. Unlike physical maladies which can be talked about openly without fear of judgment, and which only bring empathy and concern, mental maladies are not well understood by the general public and are more likely to evoke negative feelings towards the sufferer. Many people still believe that those with mental disorders are weak, faking, or just looking for pity — that if they really wanted to change, they could. Of course, nobody feels this way about someone with cancer, arthritis, or a broken limb. I believe a lot of the stigma towards mental illness also stems from people’s general terror over the possibility of experiencing it, themselves. It’s pretty distressing to think that your own mind could turn on you and invisibly wreck your life. So how can people with mental disorders, their allies, and mental health professionals help to fight this stigma? Luckily, there are many ways to get involved.
Don’t be glib when talking about mental health topics. Saying “I’m so bipolar” when you change your mind or “This is so depressing” when something doesn’t go your way is dismissive of and disrespectful towards those who actually deal with these conditions. Mental disorders result in a decreased quality of life. They are not personality quirks or shallow traits that come and go.
Be open about your own struggles. Talking about your own feelings and experiences (in a way that makes you feel safe and comfortable) helps to normalize them for yourself and others. Get professional help if you feel it would be beneficial for you. Doing so can motivate others to be open about their own struggles and more likely to seek professional help.
Watch your self-talk. Make sure you do not tell yourself negative things about yourself such as “I’m crazy”, “I’m an awful person”, “Why am I like this?”, etc. Be gentle with yourself, build yourself up, and you’re more likely to do the same for others.
Educate yourself about mental illness. Learn that mental health diagnoses are common and that many people will struggle with mental disorders at some point in their lives. Learn the common triggers, risk factors, and protective factors. Learn the options available to those with mental illness.
Emphasize the connection between physical and mental health. No one stigmatizes physical problems. However, the link between physical and mental health cannot be denied at this point. You cannot have one without the other. Attending to physical problems often necessitates attending to one’s mental health. For example, headaches or body aches are often due to anxiety, fatigue is often due to depression, and insomnia is often due to bipolar disorder.
Focus on people as people, first. People’s mental illnesses shouldn’t define them. Don’t expect, for example, that everyone with bipolar disorder will feel, think, or act the same way or that they all have the same needs. Be careful in your language, as well. Instead of saying “an addict”, say “someone who struggles with addiction”. Instead of saying “a schizophrenic”, say “a person with schizophrenia”. That centers their humanity front-and-center instead of their diagnosis.
Donate time or money to relevant organizations/causes. Organizations such as National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI), a 24-hour crisis hotline, or your local domestic violence shelter and free community mental health clinic are worthy causes.
Don’t be judgmental about medication. It is common nowadays for people to demonize psychotropic medications in favor of homeopathic remedies or no substitute at all. While there can be downsides to taking medications, many people depend on medication in order to live a normal life. Never encourage someone to get off their medication without speaking to their psychiatrist. Realize not everybody is on medication for their whole lives and most are eventually able to slowly wean off of them with their doctor’s guidance. Additionally, some people get value out of therapy only after starting meds that relax them enough to be able to concentrate.
The battle to de-stigmatize mental disorders is not new, and there has certainly been progress made. However, there is much more to be done on this score, and the war has not yet been won. It will take those who care enough about the issue to continue to advocate, educate, learn, discuss, and donate what they’re able in order to make lasting improvement.