I hear a lot of things about therapy from people I meet.
Often, I say I’m a psychologist, and I get the question, “Are you going to analyze me?” Usually followed up with, “No one would understand my weirdness anyway,” or the little more defensive (and uninformed), “Isn’t that about blaming your parents for everything? Now that might be nice!”
General laughter follows.
I have written about the stigma of mental illness. I have written about how hard it is to be vulnerable. I have tried, through writing about my own mental issues (a history of an eating disorder and panic disorder), to show that these things can happen to all of us.
There is no need for shame.
They are not pleasant, or easy. But neither is diabetes, Crohn’s, or heart disease.
Let’s say you are considering treatment. Maybe you have been on medication, maybe not. Maybe you realize you’re becoming more negative, or get mad at little things that shouldn’t bother you. Maybe you have fears that are underneath the surface, tied into things that you saw or experienced years ago. Maybe you are detaching from your partner, and you don’t know why. Maybe you are losing or have never had a good feeling about yourself.
You go to a therapist to get an objective opinion. You go to a therapist to hear their experience in helping others with problems just like yours. You go to a therapist for support and understanding. You go to a therapist to learn strategies to confront whatever it is you are facing, to help you make connections that might not have been evident to you alone.
So, how do you find such a person? And how do you decide if you can talk to them?
1. Reveal to others that you are looking for someone, and get recommendations.
Most of my referrals are either from past patients, which is always humbling. Others are from pastors, family doctors, Ob-Gyns, oncologists, neurologists, and lawyers. Obviously, you are admitting that you are seeking treatment.
But you might find that more people have gone to therapy than you think.
2. Call and talk to several.
Get a feel for who they are in a first phone call. Ask some practical questions. “What do you specialize in?” How much do you charge? Do you take or file insurance? Do you work with a medical professional, if I might need medication?”
If a clinic wants to make an appointment for you, without speaking to the therapist first, you can be firm, and ask to do so. As they listen to some of your story, how do they respond? Does it feel good to you, or not?
There are other more specific questions, that can also give you a sense of how the therapist works. “How active are you as a therapist? Do you give homework assignments? Do you see people for long periods of time, or shorter? What’s your philosophy of therapy — what kinds of changes do you most value or believe are important? Do you do trauma work (if you have trauma in your past..)? “ Those kinds of questions.
3. Go online.
Check their websites. They will talk about their philosophy of doing therapy. They may blog or have written some articles or a book. You can see their picture.
There are also state, regional and local organized clinician groups, also online. There’s the Arkansas Psychology Association in my state. Maryland, Texas and Oregon will have their own. See if they are a member or if there is a blurb about them. You can go online at your state licensing board and make sure their license is in good standing.
4) Don’t use money as a reason to avoid getting help.
I can promise you there is a tangible cost to not getting help.
There are lots of community mental health agencies and free health clinics that offer mental health services. Don’t assume that those services are somehow inferior. Many excellent, dedicated clinicians do solid work at regional mental health centers. Graduate psychology programs at colleges and universities need patients for their clinicians in training, and it’s usually free or very low-cost.
More recently, hundreds of mental health apps have been created. One touch and you’re getting help with your breathing, or a challenge to negative thoughts. Some of these are bogus. Stick to ones that come recommended by mental health websites.
5) Realize you don’t have to “tell all” in the first session.
First sessions are usually used to take a history, including family history, talk a little about your childhood, and educate the therapist about who is involved with you, your support system. You can reveal what you want to, at your own pace.
I completely understand that it’s difficult to talk to “a perfect stranger” about very private things. Most of us are accustomed to doing so with medical doctors or lawyers.
But a therapist?
Perhaps we may feel more vulnerable about the problems themselves.
Please don’t turn this discomfort into automatic distrust.
6) Take time to think about if you want to return to that therapist.
After I have listened in the first session, and suggested some goals we work on, my standard question is this. “I don’t like to assume… does what I have said to you today make sense? Or do you want to think about, and get back with me?”
I am not everyone’s cup of tea. If not, then I refer them to someone else. The fit between therapist and patient is vital for therapy to go well.
7) You will know if you’re getting better.
You will feel better. You will begin making different choices. You will finally talk about something that has been burning a hole in your self-esteem all your life. You will understand, if you have an actual clinical disorder, what the symptoms are, and what you can do about them.
You don’t go back and blame your parents.
The work is a lot harder than that.
Thanks for reading! And good luck! I have written an eBook about choosing a therapist and/or evaluating therapy you’re already receiving. “Seven Commandments of Good Therapy” is available with a subscription, if interested. Just put your email in the gray box!
Our local regional health center is Ozark Guidance Center, and both St. Francis Community Clinic and Welcome Health offer very low-cost or free mental health services. The University of Arkansas Clinical Psychology program has a very low-cost mental health clinic as well.
Images courtesy Pexel.