Shaking Off The Stigma: “I don’t need therapy - I’m not crazy!”
Updated: Apr 15, 2020
Does this sound familiar, and do you find yourself holding back from seeking help because of what you think that may say about you? Let’s discuss the elephant in the room.
“If I were stronger, I’d be able to handle this on my own.”
“My friends and family don’t know that I’m in therapy. I can’t imagine what they’d think!”
“Can we not call this a disorder? I don’t want to be viewed as one of those people.”
“I don’t really know why I made this appointment. I may be struggling, but I’m not crazy!”
What do those quotes have in common? For starters, all of them are comments that a therapist is likely to hear multiple times over the course of their career. Then we have the part where many of the individuals uttering those phrases typically feel like they’re alone in their way of thinking (they very much aren’t). Finally, those phrases are largely a product of the stigma associated with mental illness that, while gradually lessening, continues to colour the way many view it. Let’s take a look at some of the ways this affects us, and why these taboos ultimately serve no one.
The Stigmatization of Mental Health
What sort of image comes to mind when you think about the term “mental illness?” If you immediately pictured a straitjacket and a room with padded walls, you’re not alone. Mental health issues have gotten a bad rap over the years thanks in part to a history of being poorly understood and controversially conceptualized and treated. The depictions we see in the news, media, and works of fiction are typically far from what mental illness looks like in the majority of people struggling with it, but it’s those extreme depictions that tend to stick.
Beyond the desire to avoid being viewed as ‘insane,’ many also come to view speaking about problems as being taboo or a sign of ‘weakness’ due to factors such as family upbringing, social or cultural expectations, and other influences. For some, the thought of sharing their innermost struggles with another individual can bring up feelings of shame, embarrassment, or anxiety, while others view their psychological distress as part and parcel of everyday life and therefore not worth treating. These reservations are understandable in light of how rarely we see compassionate depictions of mental illness on our screens and in our headlines, but how does the reality of mental illness stack up against the myth?
Mental Health as a Continuum
While mediums such as film, television, and fictional literature often sensationalize mental health issues, the reality of mental illness for the majority of individuals is often too “boring” to make the cut. Somebody quietly managing depression or anxiety by making incremental life changes and learning new coping skills doesn’t make for attention-grabbing material in quite the same way that the extreme cases that make the evening news do. The unfortunate consequence is that this can lead us to believe that the latter is more representative of mental health struggles.
For the most part, however, mental illnesses fall on a continuum that ranges from mild to severe, depending on factors such as context, perception of ‘normalcy,’ and how much it affects one’s functioning. For example, what do we even mean when we talk about ‘normal’ behaviour or psychological functioning? What we view as normal can be influenced by considerations such as context and culture, among others. Is averting eye contact a sign of an antisocial personality, or a demonstration of deference and respect? That may depend on where you are. Is constant hand-washing an example of obsessive-compulsive behavior, or a necessary precaution? That may depend on where you work. This is why pathologizing any behaviour that seems to deviate from what is ‘normal’ or ‘expected’ can lead us to form inaccurate perceptions of what it means to be mentally healthy.
It's often the question of whether or not something is impairing our ability to function or thrive that can serve as the tipping point between maintaining the status quo and choosing to seek change, regardless of how these circumstances or traits are perceived by others, although that does little to diminish the impact that other peoples' attitudes can have on us. The result of many of these misconceptions is that we may harshly judge ourselves for living in a way that does not conform to those norms, and it reinforces the stigma that dysfunction, regardless of cause and context, is something to be ashamed of.
What Good is Talking About My Problems?
If therapy is something you hadn’t previously considered and you’re wondering how talking to someone can help you move past the current hurdles in your life, you’re not alone. To someone who has never spoken to a therapist, the idea of confiding in someone you’ve never met before can seem like a baffling concept. However, take a moment to imagine somebody sharing the stresses of their week with their physician. Or perhaps a patron describing their woes to a bartender, hairdresser, or just about any other professional who seems to be a ‘good listener.’ Those of us who are looking to be heard will seemingly reach out anywhere and everywhere to make that connection, but somehow we stop short when faced with the prospect of speaking to someone about our issues by design.
If you’ve ever confided in someone and come away feeling better, you already know the benefit of ‘talking it out.’ So what sets a therapy session apart from the salon chair or the bar stool? One of the key differences is that therapy is more than an emotional outlet - it is a vehicle for change. The therapeutic relationship differs from others because it challenges us to look inward and offers us some guidance, clarity, and a space in which to work through the mental barriers holding us back from thriving. It’s the opportunity to unburden ourselves with the support of someone trained to facilitate the process of achieving the personal growth we seek. And for some of us, it’s the reassurance of settling into a session knowing that many others have sat where we’re sitting before, and that taking a step towards improving our wellbeing and changing our lives for the better places us in pretty amazing company.
Do you suspect you may be ready to take that first step? Book a free consultation to get started!