The last few years have been huge for mental health awareness. Unfortunately, this awareness hasn’t stopped us from taking cheap pot shots at mental health professionals. (Or, as some call them, quacks, shrinks, woo peddlers, and head doctors.) We laugh at the scene in Freaky Friday where a psychologist tries to prep her teenage daughter for a day of working with patients, telling her to just nod her head and ask “And how does that make you feel” – but we secretly believe that this is exactly what it is about.
That’s what I thought, anyway, until I found myself in an apartment in France, three months into a six-month work placement, far away from everyone I knew and loved, starving myself and contemplating whether the world would be better off if I wasn’t in it.
I would not wish this kind of despair on my worst enemy.
This is not going to be a detailed walk through my experience of receiving mental health support; but it did teach me, in vivid detail, how dangerous misconceptions about therapy and mental health counselors is; and how important it is to debunk them.
1. Psychologists, counselors, mental health nurses, and psychiatrists are all the same thing.
There are different kinds of mental health professionals, just as there are many different kinds of doctors. You wouldn’t ask a dermatologist to treat your prostate – that is not the area they specialize in. Titles vary depending on where you live and have varying degrees of qualification and professional responsibility. Some psychologists specialize in particular kinds of support or working with children and teenagers. Some counselors are only trained to provide crisis response (those are volunteers at hotlines). Some psychiatrists can prescribe medication and have hospital privileges. Knowing the difference is important, especially because of the next item on the agenda.
2. It’s all snake oil.
There are plenty of people who will misrepresent their credentials to pray on the vulnerable (just like there are plenty of people who peddle snake oil under the guise of curing arthritis). This is why we need to inform ourselves about the different kinds of mental health professionals there are, what services they offer, and how they are being accredited. Recognizing the snake oil salesmen (and women!) from the real thing saves lives.
3. “Why would I pay some stranger to listen to my problems…”
Why would you pay some stranger to do your fillings? Why would you go to a hospital to set your broken leg? Mental illness is a real illness. Our brains are only one of the most complicated organs in our bodies – so why wouldn’t we go to a professional to look after them?
4. “Especially when I have someone supporting me.”
There is more than one Internet advice columnist who has written about emotional labor, but since you’re reading, allow me to reiterate: Friends and partners support each other at times of need, they are not a 24/7 sounding board. Emotional support is a cup of tea and a shoulder to cry on after a sucky day. Emotional labor is listening to that bad day repeating itself for half a year, reassuring you that you are doing your best, and enabling you to look for solutions (while not losing their temper or taking advantage of your vulnerability). Can you imagine doing that for someone else, for free, and nonstop?
5. Therapy is for self-absorbed special snowflakes looking for someone to stroke their ego.
Some therapists (the bad kind) will take advantage of their position to either make their clients feel worse (and thus keep using their services) or flatter them (into keeping to use their service). A therapist worth their salt? They will call you our on your bullshit (with compassion) and make you own your decisions. They won’t blame you for things you don’t have control over, but they won’t go around coddling you either. If you go to therapy, expect to work.
6. Therapy is only for those who are visibly unwell.
There is lots of therapy for lots of different needs. You won’t go to a specialist to treat a common cold without trying the GP first, and you won’t expect a nurse to prescribe antibiotics. I know this metaphor is on life support by now, but then, so is the stereotype. Worse, by suggesting that therapy is only for those who are visibly unwell, we are making an assumption that all mental illness is visible at all times – which is not true and puts people in danger.
7. “In the old days, they kept a stiff upper lip and got on with things.”
In the old days, they also couldn’t vaccinate against polio and tuberculosis, doctors couldn’t perform organ transplants or replace broken hips, and infirmity in old age was a death sentence. Funny how research works.
If you never, ever need to see a therapist in your life, that’s great. But don’t shit on those who do, or mistake the increased demand for mental health services as a sign of the zeitgeist. We all need a little bit of help, sometimes more than others – let’s not make asking about it more difficult than it already is.