If your stomach hurts, or your tooth hurts, you likely seek professional help or at least find something to soothe the symptoms until you can get it. We don’t just let physical symptoms worsen without addressing them, so why do we do that when it comes to our mental wellness? So many people go about their lives living with depression, anxiety, and mental illness, believing that that’s just the way life must be. Really – it’s a lot of people, as research has found that 60 percent of youth who struggle with depression receive no professional help whatsoever, there was an increase of 1.5 million Americans experiencing mental health symptoms during the pandemic, and the percentage of adults stating they need mental health treatment but are unable to receive it has not decreased in a decade.
Society can have a way of telling people that mental health doesn’t have to be a priority, and as a result, they don’t prioritize it which, sadly, can make symptoms increase immeasurably. Mental wellness can be achieved and maintained when prioritized, but the longer it goes ignored, the harder it can be to get back on track. That’s why Mental Health Awareness Month is so important. It provides an opportunity to look at these statistics and make a game plan on how to do better as individuals, and a society. We decided to speak to Dr. Catherine Jackson, licensed psychologist, neurotherapist, and author of The Couch Experience: A Guide to Good Therapy as well as the creator of The Couch Experience: Therapy Cards. Dr. Jackson explained to us some misunderstandings about managing mental health, and what one can actually expect if they seek therapy.
How should one approach therapy?
We asked Dr. Jackson how she often sees people approach therapy, compared to how she wishes she saw people approach it. Dr. Jackson says, “For some there may be barriers such as cost, stigma, myths about treatment, and lack of culturally competent care that impact the process before it ever begins…I wish for people to become more educated about therapy, what it is, symptoms of common mental health issues, and knowing when therapy may be needed for themselves or a loved one.” What she says she often sees instead, is individuals who aren’t fully aware of what services are available to them, or how to vet a therapist, so they “Settle for the first person that calls them back.”
Why are people hesitant to seek help?
Dr. Jackson noted that there are still, unfortunately, many stigmas surrounding seeking help for mental health issues. “In fact, many view mental health as something that is separate from other forms of health (physical, spiritual, social, etc.) but mental health is a part of overall health, not separate.” Dr. Jackson also brought up one group (or several large subgroups) who may particularly struggle to embrace mental health treatment. “Some people of faith feel therapy and God are separate but you can have God and a therapist too. The two can and do co-exist…Mental health practitioners have been working tirelessly to break down the walls of stigma for years.”
What are some symptoms we often overlook?
We asked Dr. Jackson what some common symptoms are of declining mental health that are perhaps often overlooked. She broke the symptoms down into five categories: physical, emotional, behavioral, social, and cognitive. Physical can include, “Headaches, stomach pains, tension in the body, appetite or bowel changes,” emotional can include, “Difficulty managing your emotions, feeling more fearful or anxious and/or experiencing intrusive or negative thoughts,” behavioral can include, “Not feeling like yourself, becoming more easily irritated or upset, and difficulty sleeping,” social can include, “Less desire for interaction with others and more social isolation,” and cognitive can include, “Changes in memory and ability to think, focus, or concentrate.”
How did the pandemic change things?
Dr. Jackson touched on how the pandemic played a particular role in bringing mental health issues – both on an individual and societal level – to light. “The pandemic has been shining a spotlight on many things, like racial concerns, political issues and also the importance of mental health. With so much of the world shut down, being home and without our typical routines and coping mechanisms made it impossible to escape the importance of lots of concerns that we were often too busy to think about or make time to address.” She also noted certain celebrities opening up about mental health issues (like Taraji P. Henson and Michael Phelps) and how that has paved the way for more dialogue around the topic.
We still have a ways to go
While some strides have been made in moving mental wellness up on America’s agenda, there’s still a lot of work to be done, says Dr. Jackson. “Generally speaking America does not prioritize mental wellness enough. We often wait until issues become a great concern before seeking help, making treatment more reactive than proactive. There are many things that may explain why this is but some include lack of resources and access to care, varying cost of treatments due to economic status, and systemic issues and inaccurate information and depictions of mental health in the news and media. We also live in a culture that prioritizes productivity over wellness, resulting in high stress levels and sometimes a fear of slowing down or taking time off, which is often necessary to reset in order to be more productive.”
What do you wish people understood about therapy?
Even when individuals do get to a place of seeking out therapy, finding a professional, and making an appointment, the difference between expectations and reality can cause them to quit sessions prematurely. Dr. Jackson explained some of that. “Lack of understanding about what therapy is and what to expect in therapy can hinder the therapeutic process. Not many are aware of the paperwork that is required in the beginning, realize the intake session typically costs more than subsequent sessions, and that you’ll be asked a lot of questions in the first session, that therapy can occur more or less depending on your needs, how you work collaboratively with your therapist to set goals and develop a treatment plan, and that subsequent sessions will have ebbs and flows, which is part of the healing process.”
What are common myths about therapy?
While some parts of the therapy process may be completely novel – like the paperwork and intake process – there are other areas in which patients are simply misinformed entirely. We asked Dr. Jackson to list some myths about therapy that should be debunked. She stated these, but there are certainly more: “Problems can be solved in a couple of sessions or, on the contrary, that it takes years of therapy before you feel better,” “Therapists prescribe medication,” “Therapy only focuses on problems and/or the past,” “That you’ll leave each session feeling better,” “That therapists will tell you what to do,” and “Therapy is just talk.”
Realistic timelines and treatment
Dr. Jackson explained why the above-listed myths are untrue, starting with the ones about how long therapy might take, and what a therapist versus a psychiatrist does. “Often problems occur over time therefore it will take time to resolve, though it doesn’t mean you’ll be in therapy forever. Most therapists do not prescribe medication. Though there are some who do, often medication for mental health is prescribed by a psychiatrist. If medication is what you seek, knowing this can help save time so you get connected with the right person initially. Therapy does not only focus on the past or your problems. In fact, discussing what works for you and building insight into your strengths is often a necessary part of treatment.”
It isn’t meant to be totally painless or easy
Next Dr. Jackson addressed the myths about how therapy will make you feel, and more on the process. “While therapy works to make sure you don’t leave feeling horrible, the nature of what you explore and the fact that you may bring up things you have not addressed may bring up uncomfortable feelings. So you will not always leave each session feeling better since we have to feel that which we need to heal. And two of the biggest misunderstandings about therapy are your therapist will tell you what to do, and therapy is just talk. Therapists help people bring about the desired changes they want, not tell you what to do…They will collaborate and work with you. Furthermore, there are a number of non-talk-based mental health treatments and some that focus very little on talk. Even talk therapy is an active process requiring more than simply talking.”
You have free tools available to you
Since we can’t always have our therapists on speed dial, we asked Dr. Jackson to suggest some tools anyone has available to them, at any time, to help them work through moments when they feel overwhelmed or unstable. She recommends journaling, stating, “Many of us hold feelings in but journaling helps express emotions that may otherwise be unexpressed.” Then there is deep breathing, of which Dr. Jackson says, “Slowing and controlling your breathing can work wonders in regulating your mood and stabilizing your nervous system.” This next one isn’t exactly a tool but more a mindset, or though process, and it’s gratitude. “Expressing gratitude is great for the brain and helps to reset a negative mindset.” Dr. Jackson also suggests watching what you eat since nutritiously dense food feeds your body and your mind.