3 ancient myths about getting therapy we all need to rethink

mental health therapy myths

Here’s why three common reactions to the idea of getting therapy are based on mental health myths, says psychology undergraduate ReD.

Every time I tell someone I want to pursue a career in psychology, the conversation follows a script. After the inevitable “I’ll be your first patient” joke, whoever I’m talking to will agree that people who are having difficulties should be able to seek treatment if they need it.

Next, they’ll cross their arms or make a little hand motion and say, “It’s just that, well, personally, I would never see a therapist… no offense, of course.”

I am never offended. Only disappointed.

Mookychick has already discussed the stigmatization surrounding mental illness, and describes how some studies have found that 2/3 people with mental illness will struggle to take steps to seek treatment. While many of us are aware of how the media can influence our perceptions of people, places, and the environment, it can be harder to see how much it affects our attitudes towards mental health. The idea that we’re less affected than others is called Illusory Superiority and may partly explain our general approach to mental health treatment – the notion that “mental health treatment is great for other people, just not me.”

Here are three of the most common reactions we have to the idea of getting mental health treatment for ourselves. They’ll include generalizations that may not apply to everyone, because mental health is such a vast category, with a variety of states, spectrums and models which can affect anyone…

“I don’t need therapy anyway, all I need is ______”

A professor during my undergraduate study delivered a very poignant phrase about mental health:

“A friend is someone you see when you’re having a bad day. A therapist is someone you see when your life is falling apart.”

Going into therapy with the idea that yes, maybe it really can help you if you give it a chance, plays a very real part in getting more out of therapy. It’s estimated that expectations about what therapy can do account for 49-70% of the program’s success rate. Showing up at the gym every week and exercising when you get there will help your fitness goals even more than showing up at the gym on its own…

We get all kinds of unhelpful messages from the media that therapy doesn’t work. In The Silver Linings Playbook and The Perks of Being a Wallflower, two recent portrayals of mental health in fiction, the protagonists overcome their mental health difficulties with the aid a support network and a manic pixie dream girl. Don’t get me wrong – these movies have a positive message that’s way better than the alternatives (“there is no fix for mental health”//”I can only be cured through the intervention of a god-like therapist and everything else is a waste of time”) but even so, they unintentionally send the message that therapy is a waste of time. Whereas it can be hugely beneficial.

A support network is wonderful, but it may not always give you what you need. Friends, partners or family don’t always have the time, money, understanding or energy to help you in the way that a qualified therapise can. What if you feel helpless because you don’t want to be a burden, and it’s hard to communicate how you feel? People might tell you to “just snap out of it”, but it’s not as easy to do as it is to say, even when you try your hardest.

Many also have this belief that only “truly crazy” people need therapy, otherising it, but studies have found that one out of every four people will experience mental health problems throughout their lives.

It’s absolutely fine to make an appointment with someone who’s trained to help you regain control of your life, and it can really help too.

“I wouldn’t want to give up my freedom.”

If you walk into a mental health clinic or therapist’s office and say you need help, the receptionist will hand you a clipboard and ask you to fill out a few forms. Unless you’re an immediate threat to yourself or others, you’ll probably be going home the same day with an appointment card.

Mental health hospitals and long-term psychiatric care exist, but they’re not the only form of treatment. It’s far more likely that you’ll be asked to show up at an office or counselling centre once or twice a week. The average duration of mental health treatment in the United States is between 6-10 sessions, although this depends on your personal needs.

Therapists are people too, and you may find they’re surprisingly good at understanding if you are struggling with appointment schedules or the treatment itself. If you feel your treatment isn’t offering you what you need, talk to your therapist. They can help come up with new treatment plans. They can also refer you to another therapist. If you decide you want to quit therapy, that’s an option too.

“I don’t want to be stuck in therapy for years.”

Though mainstream media is responsible for many of our misinformed attitudes to mental health, I believe general psychology courses are also partly responsible.

Schemata is a fun-to-say word that basically explains how our brain lumps information together. Did you ever make a spider-web organizer for writing essays? You connect the centre to topic-words relating to it. This is a pretty good representation of how brain schemata operate. They help us adapt to our rapidly changing environments, but they’re also responsible for things like stereotyping and bias.

Most Secondary and Post-Secondary educational classes on general psychology cover the history and development of the field. This means spending aeons talking about Freud’s couch, dreams, and sexual metaphors. Freud is also responsible for many popular phrases in the English language (“they can be really anal about things like that” or “they’re clearly just projecting!”). Even though most people learn about Maslow, Skinner, Horney, and Rodgers, Freud is what really comes to mind when people hear the word therapy, and Freud was famous for years of introspective sessions. It’s become part of our schema of therapy.

Therapists generally understand that people don’t have the time or money to spend years in therapy and are willing to accommodate your schedule. You can set goals with your therapist for how long you expect therapy to last, and then expect to have check-ins throughout your therapy process to see how you’re progressing.

Everyone has different needs. Sometime you may find you’ll get the most benefit from years of therapy to reach your goals, and that’s okay. It is still beneficial treatment, and can be a very important part of your journey. Sometimes you might only need a few weeks. In many cases, short-term therapy is meant to provide a solid foundation for you to build upon.

“When should I consider therapy?”

With all the myths and gut reactions connected to mental health, deciding when therapy’s the right choice for you can be tricky. One criteria for any diagnosable mental illness in the DSM-V is that the symptoms must cause significant distress or interruption of daily life.

Listen to your body. If you find yourself getting sick frequently, having a sudden downturn in your sex drive, or are experiencing unexplained headaches or stomach aches, it could be your body’s way of telling you that it is over-stressed and you need some help. If you lose interest in activities that you used to find extremely enjoyable, or your work or school performance is suffering, and everything you try seems to fail, you might want to consider therapy.

If you’re in school, check out what resources are available for you through your institution. Many colleges and universities have trained counsellors and therapists available for student use, and they know how busy a student’s schedule can be. Secondary school students can reach out to their guidance counsellors, who can often refer you to therapists in the community who are trained to work with students and young adults.

If you’re employed, check in with your human resources department, or wellness department if your company or organization has one. Some companies have policies that provide therapy and wellness to their employees.

Try talking to your physician.  They can often refer you to a mental health clinic or therapist based on your needs.

If you decide to find a qualified therapist, find one who can best serve you. Your mental needs can be challenging enough without all the false perceptions.