Mental health difficulties are likely much more common than once thought. Prevalence rates vary widely based on how mental illness is defined and how data is collected. A more recent study estimated lifetime prevalence rates of diagnosable mental illness to be well above 80%. It’s also true that in most cases these experiences will be short term. Bear in mind that these rates are for a “diagnosable mental illness”. In reality, the number of us who can benefit from support for our mental health is 100%. It just comes with the normal wear and tear of life.
Sadly, stigmatizing attitudes towards mental health difficulties are widespread. And while improving, stigmatizing attitudes towards therapy are almost as common. The damaging impact of these stigmas are significant. At best, it deters those who might enhance their lives through therapy from reaching out. At worst, it leaves people to suffer alone and in silence. It can even make healing more difficult after someone finally seeks out support. Because it isn’t talked about openly, struggling with mental health and deciding when to go to therapy can feel… well, confusing to say the least.
Your mood, thoughts, actions or history are interfering with your ability to live your life:
This may look like not being able to concentrate at work, having trouble sleeping, difficulty finding enjoyment in life, or lashing out at family or friends. It may even show up as changes in your physical health. Regardless of the form it takes, once your mental health starts to get in the way of functioning at work or at home, it’s time to reach out.
You are hurting or suffering:
Pain is an inevitable experience in life, and our tendency is to pull away from it or fight to make it go away. But in reality, fighting it or avoiding it often makes it worse in the long term. In other words, fighting with pain leads to more suffering. It can also lead to difficulty with regulating emotions such as anger, sadness, irritability, etc. Therapy can help you navigate the process of feeling and healing pain so that it doesn’t turn into suffering.
Your relationships are impacted:
Our closest relationships are often where we see the first evidence of stress or emotional overwhelm. If you’ve noticed yourself lashing out at others or gotten feedback from loved ones that something seems to have changed in you, it may be a sign that your mental health is in jeopardy.
You feel stuck or unfulfilled and want to enhance your life:
Sometimes we find ourselves stuck or feeling like we are spinning our wheels and getting nowhere. And often, the harder we try, the more we keep getting in our own way. Understanding why you are stuck and how to get unstuck is a common goal in therapy. Therapy can help you push yourself to your full potential and create a more meaningful and fulfilling life.
You’ve noticed patterns:
You may have noticed that patterns in your life have been repeating themselves again and again. Therapists are trained to notice these larger dynamics at play in your life and understand their origins. Our primary relationships and experiences growing up shape how we see and interact with the world around us. Building insight about how your past shapes your life today is an empowering and freeing experience.
You want to process wounds from the past:
We often experience incredible hardship, grief and trauma without having the space or time to process it. When this happens, our histories tend to weigh on us, or come back to haunt us. Ignoring or distracting ourselves from our past, is not the same as healing it.
You want to build better coping skills:
Perhaps there is a specific adjustment or life transition in the near future and you want better ways to cope with it. For example, you know you’ll be changing jobs, adding another addition to the family, or dealing with the failing health of a loved one. Or perhaps you have just learned to expect the unexpected and you’d like to have the tools and support to handle whatever may be thrown your way.
You want support from an ‘outside’ person:
The relationship built with a therapist is like no other. It’s a real connection with another human being who is an objective outside listener. They are solely invested in your success and happiness as you define it. Therapy can be time carved out just for you to process what is going on in your life in a safe and nonjudgmental space.
You’re curious and want to learn about yourself:
Ever wonder why your mind works the way it does? Or why you make the decisions that you do? Therapy is a great way to understand your emotions, thoughts, desires and impulses in greater depth.
Any reason at all:
You don’t have to have a well-defined reason to reach out to a therapist. It’s valid to want a listening ear, a sounding board or more support. It’s okay to just want to try it and see what happens.
All therapists are basically the same.
False! There are a variety of different types of therapists. Take a look at their education and training. Different types of therapists have different specialties and approaches. Ask them about the specific theoretical approach they use.
You have to find your ‘right fit’ therapist immediately and stick with them.
False! Reach out and talk to a few therapists. Ask for recommendations from someone you trust. Pick one and meet with them for a few appointments. If it doesn’t feel right, move on to someone else.
Therapy is only for those who are really suffering and cannot function.
False! There are so many reasons to go to therapy. Don’t wait until you are stuck and suffering to get started.
Therapy is an unnecessary luxury.
False! Therapy is an investment in yourself, your relationships, and your life. It does require time, commitment and money. If money is holding you back, reach out to therapy practices and ask about sliding scale options or pro bono offerings.
Going to therapy means you are weak.
False! Reaching out to a therapist and agreeing to dig deep week after week to better yourself takes incredible courage and strength.
Stigmatizing mental illness has a long and ugly history in our society. Many are blamed for their mental health difficulties or discriminated against because of them. And many feel too ashamed or embarrassed to seek help. Yet, to want to better oneself, life, and relationships is admirable. It takes significant courage and strength.
We each have the opportunity to examine and challenge our own biases about mental health difficulties. It isn’t ‘those who are mentally healthy’ and ‘those who are not’. We are all simply human beings living in a difficult world and trying to figure out how to navigate it. And one of the most important things we can remember is that supporting one another and combatting stigma starts with talking about it.
So let’s talk about it.
Amanda Seavey, Ph.D. is a licensed psychologist and founder of Clarity Psychological Wellness, offering psychotherapy and psychological assessment to adults, couples and groups in Raleigh, NC. She has extensive training in providing treatment for depression, anxiety, insomnia, interpersonal difficulties, trauma and substance use. Trained by some of the top researchers and clinicians in the field, her work has focused on treatments that increase psychological flexibility and reduce emotional suffering. One of Dr. Seavey’s primary specialties is in the treatment of insomnia and other sleep disorders.
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