Wednesday, February 12, 2014

Should I Go To Therapy?

If you are asking yourself that question, the short answer is yes.

That's not a difficult statement for me to make, as by and large, I believe most of us could use therapy. We all struggle with issues differently than others, and while we may eventually be able to surmount them ourselves, it never hurts to have a more knowledged voice to give us advice.

Yet many of us resist even considering therapy for a myriad of reasons. In this post, I'd like to take the time to address some of those issues.

To begin, I will preface by saying therapy is an enormously complex issue. There are numerous approaches to therapy, and there is debate among the effectiveness of the various forms. Additionally, not every therapist may be helpful for all people, and there are some therapists who may be helpful to very few people, if any at all. Yet in general, therapy is effective. Studies have shown therapy to be beneficial for the majority of those who take it.

It has certainly been helpful for me. In the beginning of my freshman year of college in 2012, I was struggling with the same issues I struggled with in school. I continued to have severe depressive episodes and frequent thoughts of self-harm, and on several occasions came very close to performing that self-harm. It was in response to those ongoing struggles that I worked with my mother to sign up for therapy with a therapist who specializes in treating people with Asperger's.

It has been less than two years since then, and I have improved enormously. Certainly, some of it might be attributed to adjusting to life at college and the effectiveness of medication, but all of it? The lessons he's taught me are now the lessons I incorporate into my own behavior, and much of the advice he has given me is the advice I have given to others, and it is often just as effective for them as it is for me.

Yet even when hearing about the effectiveness of therapy, it can be easy to have doubts, especially for those of us who have never had therapy before. Here are some of the more common reasons I have heard for why people do not go to therapy, and my own responses to them.

I don't have time for therapy

While this can be a legitimate reason for some, I feel this statement often hides other concerns and reservations, but speculating on that is beyond the scope of this post.

Therapy doesn't have to take long. I attend therapy every two weeks, and all it involves is an hour worth of commuting time and an hour's worth of therapy.  That's an hour a week of therapy. If I feel I need for more, I can ask for more. If I feel the need for less, I can ask for less. The point being it's on a regular basis.

It helps to think of therapy not as time spent, but as time invested, into better mental health. If you are more mentally healthy, then your performance in all areas of your life will improve as well. Your performance in your job can improve, and thus lead to a promotion. You can take greater joy out of life, and feel less stress. Your relationships can improve. Putting time into therapy now can pay dividends later.

If you feel as though you do not have time for therapy, I would ask you to consider what things you do spend your time on. Consider what needs to be done and what doesn't need to be done. Ultimately, it is up to you and what you prioritize to determine whether you have the time for therapy.

I can't afford therapy

Many believe they are unable to afford therapy, and often the costs for therapy are higher than many of us are comfortable, especially when we are dealing with something as ambiguous as internal problems. I am no expert on the subject, but this article on Psych Central seems a good place to start for finding affordable therapy and alternatives to traditional therapy.

Like my answer to the previous question, it helps to view therapy as an investment. You put time and money into therapy now so you will be better off in the future.

I don't have problems like other people who go to therapy do

There is common misconception that therapy is only reserved for people with severe mental illness. Yet therapists are not trained simply in dealing with severe mental illness. They are trained in dealing with many of life's struggles, as often the struggles accompanying severe mental illness are the same struggles that plague us in everyday life.

I have gone to my therapist for relationship advice, career advice, advice for dealing with numerous everyday problems. Indeed, as I've improved over the past year, it seems when I speak to him it is more and more often about more mundane things, and he is just as helpful with those as he is with the more unique and severe problems I've had to deal with.

There is no singular set of problems that are therapy-material. There are therapists who specialize in treating certain problems, such as family therapists and eating disorder therapists, but many therapists are able to counsel for a wide variety of problems, from marital problems to work-related stress to existential crises.

I don't want to waste the therapist's time with my problems when there are others who could use the time much better

This is, in some respects, another form of the previous argument. We argue that by taking up the time of a therapist, we are taking away that time for another person with "worthier" issues that the therapist can help.

Ignoring the question of what makes one set of issues worthier than others, I will point out that therapy is not a sparse resource. Indeed, the industry is growing. The Bureau Of Labor Statistics states "Employment of mental health counselors and marriage and family therapists is projected to grow 29 percent from 2012 to 2022, much faster than the average for all occupations."

Furthermore, The laws of supply and demand apply as much to therapy as it does to any other industry. The more people who sign up for therapy, the more demand there is for therapy, and the more therapists there are. By engaging in therapy, you do not take away another person's ability to attend therapy, but rather give another therapist the potential to provide those services to that other person.

I'm afraid of my friends and family finding out

A lot of this is related to the existing stigma surrounding therapy, which is itself related to the stigma surrounding mental illness. We view poorly people with mental illness, and mentally ill people often seek treatment through therapy. We fear that if we take therapy, we are admitting ourselves to have mental illness, and thus exposing ourselves to that same poor treatment.

I've said this before, but often we build up the stigma of mental illness as being more intense than it actually is, particularly with our family and friends. The same applies with the stigma of therapy. We fear that if they find out we are taking therapy they will reject us, but very often that fear is only because we understate the bonds of those relationships, and think they are more fragile than they actually are. Very often they are not, and the things we were so afraid of turn out to be far less important to them than we thought they were. They want us to live better lives, and if therapy is what is needed for that, often they are willing to accept that. This does not apply to all cases, of course, but it should be borne in mind.

Regardless no one needs to know you are attending therapy. Your business is your business. You are free to keep your therapy to yourself.

These problems are just a temporary thing. They will pass

It is easy to believe that something will go away on its own and so we don't need to take time out to address it directly. But ask yourself these questions: For how long have you had these problems? How do they impact your life? Do they pose significant obstruction in your life? Do they often make you feel uncomfortable? Do they take away enjoyment from normally enjoyable things?

Imagine also the desired outcome of therapy, which is that these problems you struggle with are controlled, or perhaps even gone entirely. How does that compare to how you are living now? Is the change worth a few hours of therapy every month?

If I need therapy, it means I can't handle my own issues

Many people view receiving treatment as an admission of their own incompetence, that they cannot handle their own issues and so they need outside help to deal with it. Ostensibly, we view ourselves like this because we want to hold ourselves responsible for our actions and encourage ourselves to change on our own. Yet so often this does not work out as we intend it, as often the problems we have are out of our control. This applies not only to brain-based mental illnesses but also to trauma like the death of a family member or a car crash, where dysfunctional responses are unfortunately very common. To think we are weak for suffering from these is akin to thinking we're weak because someone else broke our arm, and the logic of withholding treatment for mental issues is as irrational and unhealthy as withholding treatment for physical issues.

Therapy is not meant to be a replacement for our own effort and will, but rather is meant to enhance it. Therapy is designed so that we learn coping mechanisms and solutions for our daily struggles, and it is still up to us how we implement what we learn. Therapists often provide us with perspectives and possible solutions which we may not have come up with on our own.

Rather than thinking about what we must lack for using therapy, we should think instead of what we have to gain from it.

My past therapist(s) didn't help me. How can I be sure my next therapist won't do the same?

You can't, unfortunately.

Therapists, as with many treatments, are a trial-and-error process. Some therapists have methods and personalities that are helpful only to some people, and some therapists are helpful to no one at all. You may have to go through several different therapist before you find one that works for you.

I had two therapists before my current one. While both were helpful, I never felt as though I were bettering myself so much as I was maintaining myself, and whatever changes I had were not dramatic enough for me to notice. My current therapist is experienced specifically with dealing with young people with Asperger's, and the effect his therapy has had on me was immediate and noticeable and vastly more effective than my previous therapists. A year ago, I would not have considered writing this blog, or working as much as I am now. Yet here I am, and I'm considering working even more.

What if I find out I have a mental illness?

Then you know it's something that can be treated.

This question, and most of these questions, are at their root hiding a central motivation: We don't want to go to therapy because we fear the stigma attached to it.

Mental illness stigma is present in our society, and we fear if we are associated with it, we will suffer the negative effects of stigma. We fear that going to therapy means we are admitting to ourselves that we are sick, in ways beyond our control.

Yet therapy is effective. It enables us to address our problems and concerns in a safe and stress-free environment. We are aided by a trained professional who can aid us in viewing the nuances, subtleties, and solutions of our problems when we may not be able to alone, and for however long we are in their office, the therapist's attention is devoted wholly to us. As my own therapist put it, therapy is a place where we can be selfish.

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