Estimated reading time: 7 minutes
By: Dr. Jen Sincore Gallagher
The question: “Have you ever considered therapy?” is not an insult! Mental illness awareness is so important and so often shrouded in misunderstanding. This is what a therapist wants you to know about therapy and mental health.
For the past thirty years, the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) and other mental health advocates have annually promoted Mental Illness Awareness Week (MIAW), which falls on the first week of October. While raising awareness of mental illness and working to normalize mental health treatment are important topics every day of the year, it’s helpful to have a special week to highlight its importance.
This year’s theme of Mental Illness Awareness Week is a special opportunity to give voice to those whose experiences are often misunderstood: What People with Mental Illness Want You to Know.
As a twist on their official theme, I wanted to share a few things a therapist wants you to know when seeking mental health treatment. While this topic could easily turn into a book, I narrowed it down to five key concepts
I’ve taken the following examples from the collective knowledge that I have gained over my years as a mental health provider. If you are seeking or are curious about mental health treatment, this should be interesting for you.
1. Mental Health and Mental Illness Exist on a Continuum
One of the most common misconceptions regarding treatment-seeking is that of, “I’m not sick enough to need mental health services.”
This seems like such a simple and concrete notion on the surface, yet it actually presents an “all or nothing” trap. Where does this line of “sick enough” or “need” exist?
The truth is, everyone can benefit from mental health services at some point in the same way that everyone can benefit at some point from medical services for physical health.
From a societal standpoint, we tend to not question the relevance of routine medical check-ups or making an appointment with a general medical practitioner when feeling physically “off.” At the same time, many often question the legitimacy of feeling mentally “off” and avoid seeking mental health therapy to help. In many cases, we wait until our distress and impairment are so severe that it becomes intolerable.
It is so important to view our mental health through the same lens that we view our physical health: as something that is both vital and normal to proactively maintain.
2. Meeting Full Criteria for Mental Illness is Not a Requirement for Benefitting from Mental Health Services
Mental health is multifaceted and complex.
It is true that meeting diagnostic criteria for mental illnesses can play an important role in providing structure for the evaluation of symptoms. In other words, if you’re diagnosed with a certain mental illness there are often specific sets of evidence-based therapies to treat it.
At the same time, formal diagnoses are by no means the end all be all for determining if you could benefit from therapy.
For example, it is not uncommon to seek therapy for support in identity exploration (understanding yourself), enhancement of relationship skills, and managing stress related to major life transitions (e.g. the death of a loved one or taking a new job).
I could strongly and validly argue that the skills commonly taught in therapy (e.g. mindfulness and effective emotion regulation) are so universally important that they should be taught in classrooms as routinely as math and science. I bet you know someone who could have benefited from a class that taught how to manage emotions.
3. Mental Illness is Not Indicative of Personal Defect
The extent to which a person struggles with mental illness is in no way reflective of laziness or not trying hard enough. It is also in no way reflective of fundamental or global defects.
If you or someone you know is diagnosed with a mental illness it is important to understand you are not your diagnosis. You are a whole person who also happens to experience a collection of corroborated and empirically researched symptoms classified as a mental illness.
There is a saying that mental health clinicians tend to be particularly fond of: “Pain in life is inevitable, suffering is optional.”
There are so many experiences in life that are validly painful — failing an exam, getting laid off, struggling with mental illness. The suffering comes from the extra meaning that we place upon the pain. Examples of the stories we tell ourselves:
- “I failed that exam because I am stupid”
- “Getting laid off means that I am worthless”
- “Struggling with symptoms of mental illness and receiving treatment means that I am defective and weak”
It is not a problem or “bad” if a person finds themself in a position in which they could benefit from treatment — the notion that one should never be in a position to benefit from treatment is the problem.
Generally speaking, we tend to be pretty comfortable with seeking services from specialists when needed.
- If the plumbing in the house stops working, we enlist the services of a specialist
- If we have questions regarding our taxes, we call a specialist
- If we experience specific medical ailments, we accept referrals to a specialist.
We tend not to judge ourselves for using a plumber, accountant, or a medical doctor. So, it stands to reason that we should view the use of specialized services for mental health without judgment. Our mental health is our most precious asset, after all.
4. A Recommendation for Therapy or Psychotropic Medication is Not and Should Not be Used as an Insult
Something that is both common and unhelpful is casual comments of, “ugh they need therapy,” or, “uhh you need meds.”
Words are important!
Phrases intended as an insult may seem harmless but it strongly contributes to stigmatization. This stigmatization can contribute to feelings of misunderstanding, disconnection, and shame.
It is not uncommon for someone who struggles with mental illness to report that the feeling of shame that they experience as related to their mental illness is more distressing than the symptoms themselves.
In the same vein, being on the receiving end of a recommendation for mental health treatment can be perceived as an insult even when it is not intended to be. We must be aware of the extra meaning we may be placing on others’ statements. These extra meanings, or feelings, can be subconscious and based on our own preconceived notions.
In other words, you may feel that therapy is a bad thing so when someone suggests you partake to help you through a tough situation, you take offense. Therapy is not a bad thing so your own opinion could be coloring the recommendation.
A suggestion for assistance with mental health can be as normal as a suggestion for a new shampoo or a book – something that could enhance the quality of one’s life. It should be an idea made with enthusiasm and care.
5. Mental Health is a Process, Not a Destination
Many people are surprised by the notion that good mental health requires proactive and deliberate care. The concept of mental health maintenance is true for everyone — it is the methods of maintenance that depend on the individual. Different things work for different people at different times.
Sometimes our methods of emotion management and expression that work well in one stage of our lives do not translate to the next. Sometimes our coping skills work for a while and then do not work as well later. This is true even when the circumstances do not change. This is normal.
Whether your experience with mental illness is direct or indirect, it is everyone’s duty as a community to find ways to support and understand each other.
Foundational to supporting mental health initiatives is challenging the stigma of mental health therapy through knowledge. Stigma is often bred from misunderstanding and misinformation.
As humans, we can be inclined to reject that which is unfamiliar or unknown. We can combat this by being curious about what is involved with good mental health both conceptually and experientially.
We can then channel that curiosity into actively seeking information and understanding through multiple lenses. Still, there is no full substitute for asking a loved one with mental illness: What do you want people to know about your experiences?
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