Friday, May 4, 2018

Why (and how) I began therapy for my mental health

Therapy? That's for people with serious problems, right? People who are having suicidal thoughts or have divorced parents or went through an intensely traumatic event. Isn't mental health therapy for these people? If none of these criteria apply to you, there's no need to ever see a counselor, correct? 

Why am I even thinking about this right now? I mean, words like "therapy," "counseling" "depression" or "anxiety" are NOT to be mentioned, since it's a fairly taboo topic. 

Has this monologue ever occupied your thoughts? 
Sadly, these words have not just run through my mind-I have wholeheartedly believed them for years. 

Therapy is for people like them. But me? I'm fine. I'm happy-joyful, even-and I don't need help. Yes, there are things I struggle with. But isn't struggle just part of the Christian life? And if I keep encountering the same problems for years on end, don't I just need to pray harder, love better, and become holier for it to all calm down? If things haven't improved-even when I pray and pray some more-it's my cross. Evidently, I'm to be enslaved to these problems for an undetermined time. 

I've never been quick to ask for help. Whenever an ailment strikes me-a sore throat, runny nose, congestion-my instinctual reaction is to research "home remedies" so I don't have to visit a doctor. After all, if it's a "little thing," I don't want to waste the doctor's-or my own-time by scheduling an appointment! While this routine may be fine in very minor instances, if you've been fairly sick for days on end, you should probably consider seeing a medical professional.

What about our mental health? We are quick to utilize "home remedies" like self-care and pampering. But, while we may agreeably see a doctor if we break an arm, we can hesitate when it comes to seeing a professional for our mental health. After all, unless we're having dangerously suicidal thoughts, it would be a waste of everyone's time to see a therapist-or so our thinking can go.

Honestly, I don't recall ever seeing a problem with this narrative until I reached college. I was happy, and my problems seemed insignificant compared to what other people were going through. In college, several of my friends were majoring either in psychology or social work, so topics pertaining to mental health become rather normal in conversations that I had with them. I still saw therapy as something for other people, but I began to realize that more people could benefit from therapy than my initial narrow vision had dictated.
This refrain bounced through my mind
for a long time. 
At a conference, I heard this man speak about mental health, and my views started to shake. Here was a guy-just a little younger than myself-who came from a normal, "good Catholic family"-and he had attempted suicide after living with an undiagnosed depressive disorder for years. He emphasized the importance of breaking the negative stigma that surrounds mental health, and I found myself agreeing completely with his an extent. I began to embrace the idea that therapy was good for lots of people-but not for me.

A little over a year ago, I read Mindset: The New Psychology of Success, by Carole Dweck, and my world started to rock even more. Reading about "fixed mindsets" and "growth mindsets" helped me realize the need to stretch myself so I could embrace growth in my life. About six months later, I finally broke down and read a book that had been on the edge of my radar for a while: Boundaries, by Cloud & Townsend. Within the first ten or so pages of this book, my eyes opened wide and I began to see myself more clearly than I had before. As I read more and more, I became convicted in a new resolution: I need to start mental health therapy.  

I started to understand that even if I wasn't living with a dramatic mental health situation, I still had been living with lots of garbage. I began to realize that I don't need to be enslaved by this trash anymore. Yes, the Christian life is filled with sufferings, but we aren't called to become slaves to these sufferings; we are to live in the freedom of Christ-and when we take care of our mental health, we are better able to serve God and others. 

I was strong in my resolution, but then the holidays happened, and I was caught in the throes of first trimester nausea. I have to admit that as the days and months rolled by, I forgot all about seeing a professional. However, one night, I had a dream. I can't even remember what happened in the dream, but I do recall that it contained some situations which triggered me, and I knew that I needed to see a therapist. But how does one even start this process?

In case there are other people out there who are fairly clueless about beginning therapy, here's what worked for me: 

1. Pray (and, if you're married, communicate with your spouse) about your need for therapy.

Be open and honest with God. Ask Him to help you find a good counselor or therapist. Ask Him to bring you peace as you find help. Above all, ask God to give you the courage you need to start the sessions. If you're married and feel you can be open with your spouse, communicate to him or her the importance of therapy. Hopefully, your spouse will be able to support and assist you in this mission (by watching the kids while you attend sessions, by praying for you, or by encouraging you in other ways). 

2. Look around your area to see what resources are available.
If you don't know specifically what type of therapist or counselor you are looking for, you can try to find various options in your area that will provide "free sessions" so that you can get help and see what exactly you need from therapy. Some companies offer free counseling sessions through Employee Assistance Programs, and other organizations offer a similar service (for example, our local Catholic Charities offers some free sessions). If you have any friends who are therapists, you can ask them if they know of any good local resources. There are also a variety of search engines online which can narrow down the therapists (and their specialties) who work in your area. Don't feel like you have to find the "perfect" therapist immediately; you can always switch providers later on as you figure out what your needs are. 

3. If you can, build a small network of support. 
I realize that therapy is a bit of a taboo topic in some areas and circles. However, I found a lot of good in telling a few select people when I began the process of finding a counselor. These were people who wouldn't try to solve my problems for me; these were supportive individuals who simply talked with me, prayed for me, or sent me encouraging text messages. A support network is also a good reminder that we are not alone. When I began mentioning therapy to people, many of them said that they had gone-or currently were attending-some sort of therapy as well. You may not have any people in your life who could help bolster you in this way. If, however, you do have a person or two whom you trust with this, by all means, ask for some prayers and encouragement. Remember: you don't have to go into specifics or muddle through your secrets and burdens at this point (that's what your therapy sessions will be for!). Simply ask for support and prayers. 

4. GO (and practice some patience while you're at it!).
So you've made an appointment with a mental health professional. That, in itself, is pretty huge. To see the appointment marked on your calendar or in your planner makes it more real. This is a big step you've taken, but the battle's not over yet. You still need to go. Go to your session with an open mind and heart. Don't expect to magically solve all of your problems in one meeting; these things take time and a lot of effort and work. Don't even expect to stick with the first therapist you see! Just as a pregnant woman will switch health care providers if she's not comfortable with her initial midwife or OB/GYN, so you can change which counselor you're seeing if your needs are not being met in the most helpful manner. 

You may have bad experiences with some therapists. You may struggle in facing your problems and learning how to deal with them appropriately. You may be tempted not make your mental health a priority. Despite all of this, you need to keep at it. I'm not a professional or highly knowledgeable about therapy by any means. All I can really speak from is my own personal experience. And from this experiential knowledge, I can tell you this:

At the very first session I had with a licensed counselor, I felt a new depth of freedom. I realized that I don't have to live chained to the bad experiences of my life. I was given tools to move forward, and I was given goals to work towards. My heart and soul felt lighter, and it seemed that I could see myself and others even more clearly. 

I truly believe that every person could benefit from therapy at some point in his or her life. It can be a wonderful gift that helps us love ourselves, others, and God better. Maybe you don't see a need to begin therapy at this point in your life, and that's completely fine! Just keep this resource in mind for the future. And please, please, regardless of whether or not you are working through therapy, do what you can to break the negative stigma that surrounds it. I look forward to the day when mentioning therapy and counselors in conversations will be as commonplace as chatting about one's dentist or primary doctor!    


  1. So glad you’re finding freedom in making your mental health a priority! Thanks for sharing about your experience.

  2. Future counselor here! Great post! I like your tips a lot. Might I also add, there are websites which can help you search for a specifically Catholic or Christian counselor. I definitely recommend seeing a counselor that shares your faith and can offer a perspective faithful to that, and even use therapeutic techniques that bring in Jesus & prayer. As far as your last sentence...I look forward to the same!

    1. That's so awesome that you are going into counseling! Thanks for sharing that advice about websites specific to Catholics and Christians. Are there one or two specific sites you would recommend?