One of my jobs as a therapist is to make sure that whoever walks into my office for the first time feels safe and comfortable. One way I often do this, is through humor. Here is a common exchange I engage in if they are new to therapy:
Therapist: So… is this your first time seeing a therapist?
New client: Yeah, it is.
Therapist: Congratulations! You made it!
If they are returning to therapy, I try with this:
New Client: No, I’ve seen someone before.
Therapist: Excellent! Welcome back!
This always gets a laugh and breaks some of the tension. Then we get to the business of figuring out what brought them in and where we go from there.
I break the ice this way because I do understand the bravery that it takes to step into a therapist’s office to seek out help. I am also keenly aware that there is a general stigma in our culture against seeking mental health. You often see it in the subtlest of memes online with sayings like “Netflix is my therapy” or “Running is my therapy.” To be fair, self care and endorphin boosting physical activity are crucial for mental health, but the subtext is that we don’t need to see a trained mental health professional because we can do something else and will be okay. Many times this can keep people from seeking the help they might really need.
The same thing often happens from a religious perspective. Often times there is an unspoken belief that if you reach out to someone for help with your mental health, it denotes a weakness of faith or lack of trust in God. As a Christian therapist, I understand the value and power of Faith and what prayer can do. But it has been my experience that when a person is told that their need for help with their mental health is a lack of faith, it tends to only prolong emotional trauma, increase shame, and exacerbate unhealthy situations.
With so many voices and biases out there pertaining to the simple act of walking through a therapist’s door, it’s no wonder that it makes people nervous. On top of that, the expected required vulnerability and honesty that therapy often demands of a person only adds to the distress. All of this before even walking into the room!
So how do you combat such ideas? I would suggest the answer to this question might help: What do therapists actually do? I often describe the process of therapy as one of hope. In that, I define hope as the belief that things can change, and often, for the better. All therapists are doing, regardless of presenting issue or reason for being in therapy, is helping clients get to a place where they can make the changes that they need to live healthier lives.
Different therapists come at this task in different ways. They may have different training, levels of experience, and techniques. Regardless, they all seek to help people get to a place where the person a client wants to be and the person they are can become closer to the same person.
People often come to therapy as their last resort. We get that and for that very reason we have become great at crisis management. Some come before things fall apart and are looking to make changes in how they are living their life. We get that too. We strive to meet people where they are presently at. We also strive to help people beyond their current situation into finding the roots of what led them there and to determine what long-term changes they can enact to live healthier in the future.
As therapists, we may use self care, running, and even prayer as a tool for how we help clients discover the changes they need in life! Whether we are seen as an emergency room for individuals, couples, or families in crisis, or a gym for those trying to get in better emotional and mental shape, therapists’ goal is to do no harm and to help others in need.
Cultural change rarely comes through disproving another’s assumptions or beliefs, but more through experiencing and sharing one’s own experience. If you or someone you love find themselves struggling with whether to seek help with their mental health, I would encourage you to give it a shot. If it goes well, do us a favor – let someone else know! Therapy is not for the broken, it is for those seeking to make the changes they need to be a better human being. And if we get enough of those people together, we might just change the world! (or at least some perceptions!)