I’ve often wondered what our world might look like if there were less ‘hang-ups’ about seeking treatment in the form of psychotherapy or counselling. I imagine that most of us who provide this treatment as well as those who choose to receive treatment aren’t as impacted by those who choose not to seek support or delay their therapy or counselling. Although, stigma does seem to be decreasing over the years, some stigma is self-imposed while other stigma is socially-based. And this is often related to the fear of what others may negatively perceive of those seeking support. However, it’s been my experience as a mental health practitioner that clients who have sought clinical support are actually the stronger individuals who would like to improve their coping skills, strategies and to improve their lives with the overall goal to move from good to great status. Often these clients already are in the process of overcoming past traumas, loss, grief, and challenges in their lives.
In fact, over the years it has felt like a hamster wheel of repetitive, yet simultaneous and well-needed conversations about stigma from psychotherapy or counselling which may seem outdated and not reflective of our modern times. So I do hope and dream that our society gets to collectively climb off that hamster wheel one day permanently! And as our times are inevitably changing, individuals are increasingly becoming better informed of the positive impact that psychotherapy or counselling can have on one’s overall mental health and well-being. Moreover, I do feel hopeful when I notice that stigma or the negative perception of receiving treatment has actually decreased over the years. Research does in fact inform us that there are amazing positives when a person simply ‘speaks to someone’ who is strictly there to listen to your thoughts while processing and supporting your other accompanying feelings and validation about various issues.
These sorts of issues may come from a wide range of topics such as: academic, health, financial, career & work-related issues as well as transitional challenges with various difficult life cycle events such as grief and loss (such as the death of a family member or the ending or recent breakup from romantic relationship, getting married or divorced, the addition of a new baby within one’s family, providing care for loved ones because of illness and disability and inabilities to make decisions based on these major life events. Despite this wide range of areas that one can seek support for (and these are just a few topics!), I do believe that we have a long way to go when it comes to perceiving such support as ‘normal’, especially for those who are not ‘labeled’ with a mental illness.
It is said that although there are millions of people who will look for support through counselling or psychotherapy, there is a huge number of people of people who won’t request the support when they need it. And often, it is these people who don’t access these resources simply because of stigma.
Stigma is defined as,”a mark of disgrace associated with a particular circumstance, quality, or person.” For example, “the stigma of mental disorder”. Synonyms: shame, disgrace, dishonour, ignominy, opprobrium, humiliation, (bad) reputation.
Unfortunately, many people fear being ‘stigmatized’ or negatively judged or perceived for seeking such treatment. And it is this stigma to psychotherapy or counselling that is hugely linked to the decrease of happiness or the overall satisfaction of one’s quality of life coupled with the mental health of individuals.
REASONS OR EXCUSES FOR STIGMA
There are different reasons for why people will decide not to seek the support from a psychotherapist. This is often very interconnected to the stigma that these people think they will have to deal with. Here are common reasons of why individuals will not seek treatment from a psychotherapist:
- “People will think I am crazy.”
These people relate psychotherapy to “being crazy” or having a mental illness. Just because you have some problems you need help with doesn’t mean you are “crazy”. Furthermore, mental illness is a sickness, which needs treatment, just like a medical problem. But just to clarify, many people can and do seek therapy or counselling without having a mental illness.
- “People will think I can’t control my own life.”
Everyone has days when they need some help with whatever is going on in life. The problem is that people often feel physically ill when they keep these problems and feelings bottled up inside. Seeking help does not make you weak, and there is no need to take on challenges by yourself. In fact, it is more effective to seek support from a non-family member or non-friend because they may bring with them biases instead of objective ways to support you. Finally, it makes you stronger as a person for finding ways to make your life more fulfilling for you.
- “People will think I am just blowing things out of proportion.”
Your friends and family members will always have some view on what you do in your life just as you do of them. Sometimes you just have to let go of their opinions (especially of they are limiting beliefs or values) and take care of yourself. It’s always nice to have support for the reasons why you need to seek out psychotherapy but sometimes you just need to take that first step on your own.
SELF-IMPOSED AND SOCIAL STIGMA
It was interesting to receive the response from one of my clients recently who stated that ‘she feels that she may be going crazy’ as she becomes challenged with her irrational thoughts based on her anxiety. So although, she may have decided that she requires treatment, she is challenged with self-imposed stigma that defines her as being unhealthy, uncontrollable, and irrational and thus she has continued to feel shame and guilt (and other negative perceptions) when we process her experiences with anxiety.
This is an excellent example of self-imposed stigma. In scenarios such as this one, I usually like to spend a little time with my client exploring and giving her some time to examine what she defines as ‘normal’ of her experiences, while looking a little closer at where her beliefs and values may in fact be determining how she feels about being an anxiety sufferer. This is often completed while we process how her feelings of shame and guilt may be one of her first barriers towards acceptance and feelings of normalization towards her overall state of well-being and mental health.
IS IT IMPACTED BY ONE’S SOCIO-ECONOMIC STATUS, EDUCATION, RACE, ETHNICITY AND OVERALL CULTURAL BELIEFS AND VALUES?
Yes, stigma is very much impacted by these variables. Those who are linked to lower socio-economic families, have less education, and belong to certain races, cultural beliefs and values are often negatively impacted by lifestyles, and traditional ways of thinking that may become barriers towards change and seeking psychotherapy or counselling. But there have been known to be many exceptions and I have enjoyed working with clients over the years who have been incredibly motivated to challenge the upbringing that they received as children.
FEARS OF OTHER PEOPLE’S PERCEPTIONS
It is often a very gender-based issue but is impacted especially by those with low self-esteem. Those with higher levels of internal locus points are often challenged less by the fear of what others may be perceiving of them.
WHAT CAN WE DO?
You would be amazed at how many people go to therapy or have in the past. Most people don’t talk about receiving therapy for the same reason why you haven’t gone to therapy yet yourself. However, once people feel confortable with you and whether they can relate to you – they do feel safe and do feel open to to talk about their experiences in therapy. Here are some ways you can fight the stigma of psychotherapy in your own community.
- Join groups
Many communities have group therapy on a wide array of issues. This gives you a chance to meet others going through the same things you are and feel more comfortable about going to therapy.
- Listen and converse
Some people will not publicly express they see a mental health professional and this may have nothing to do with stigma and more to do with understandably not feeling the need to disclose personal information. However, someone perhaps may say something about how hard a particular situation is in life. This is the perfect opportunity to ask if they ever received help for it. If the person says he or she did, then you can also disclose your experience. This is a great way to share when you feel safe and feel connected with the person you are conversing with.
- Encourage others
If you have a friend or family member who is either going through a rough time or suffering from a mental disorder, encourage him or her to attend psychotherapy.
THE STIGMA IS CHANGING FOR PSYCHOTHERAPY AND/OR COUNSELLING
Since the past ten years, 50 percent of North Americans feel the stigma of mental health services is decreasing. Also an increasing number of people are seeking support without needing to seek approval or acceptance from others. And this is an interesting shift! If you haven’t sought treatment for your mental health before because of what others might think, you might want to reconsider and get the help you need. You deserve to be happy in life and psychotherapy can help!