When a potential client calls psychologist Shoshana Bennett, Ph.D, the first thing she does is congratulate them. “I say, ‘good for you. You did something great for yourself and those around you.’”
That’s because seeking professional help takes strength. But we rarely see it this way. We feel overwhelmed or burnt out. We feel vulnerable, exposed — a gaping wound. We beat ourselves up, believing we should be able to solve our own problems. We should be able to tough it out. And we berate ourselves endlessly because we can’t. What’s wrong with me?!?!
Maybe you were raised to believe you should be completely self-reliant, Bennett said. You were taught that you shouldn’t need anyone else, and if you do, then you’re inadequate, she said.
Maybe you were raised to see limitations as “she’s not really ill” or “he just lacks the guts to finish,” or “she’s just playing the victim, again,” said Ryan Howes, Ph.D, a clinical psychologist in Pasadena, Calif. Maybe you were raised to think that people who couldn’t overcome their emotional issues (their invisible limitations) on their own didn’t have the guts, willpower or strength of character, he said.
Or maybe you’re worried that others will see you as weak, incompetent, lazy or crazy. Either way, this kind of thinking stops people from going to therapy.
“Nobody would expect themselves or somebody else to power through their cardiac issues, cancer or diabetes and avoid seeking treatment,” said Joyce Marter, LCPC, founder and CEO of Urban Balance, a large insurance-friendly counseling practice with multiple locations in the Greater Chicago Area.
“I wish people had the same awareness of the seriousness of mental health issues and the importance and benefits of seeking professional help.” Mental health issues are serious, and not seeking help is dangerous.
“[M]illions of people who have legitimate needs for help avoid it in order to save face,” Howes said. Millions of people needlessly suffer because they believe that seeking help makes them weak.
“The longer one lives with a mental health issue of any kind, the more dangerous it becomes,” said Bennett, author of four books on depression, including Children of the Depressed. For instance, a person with depression stops sleeping well, eating properly and going to doctor checkups, she said. “It affects their entire being … They start thinking this is how they are. ‘I’ll never be happy. I’m just meant to be this way. Since it hasn’t gone away on its own, this is just me for the rest of my life.’”
They become hopeless. And hopelessness leads to suicide, said Bennett, a survivor of two suicidal depressions. “[E]very year we lose friends, family and loved ones to suicide,” Marter said.
People also self-medicate mental health issues with drugs or alcohol, she said. This “creates a downward spiral that can be life threatening.” Untreated mental health issues can impair job performance and wreck financial well-being, Marter added. For instance, she’s worked with many clients who’ve racked up serious debt during manic or hypomanic episodes.
Seeking help is smart. “We’re not experts in all areas,” Bennett said. It’s a wise decision to turn to people with expertise in one area, no matter what area it is, she said. We see doctors when we’re sick and dentists when we have a cavity. We hire contractors to renovate or repair our homes. Just like we can’t operate on our teeth or fix a broken roof, we can’t treat depression on our own or know how to change deeply entrenched thought patterns.
Seeking help is healthy and courageous. “It takes courage to face our issues and make a commitment to address them consciously and move through them to the best our ability,” said Marter, who pens the Psych Central blog The Psychology of Success.
It simply means we are human, Howes said. “It’s impossible for a person to be strong in all areas all the time, we’re people not gods or perfect robots.”
He also noted that we naturally need others. “Attachment research shows that the healthiest, most secure people are both capable of meeting their needs and reaching out for help from time to time.” They’re not lone rangers who don’t need anyone, he said. Instead, “they’re aware of their limitations and able to ask for help when they need it.”
We think it’s stronger to deal with our issues completely on our own. But suffering and not getting help only make it harder on our loved ones, Bennett said. Our mental health concerns interfere with our daily functioning. They sabotage our communication and create needless conflict. We may be unable to take care of ourselves and our kids. “When you do what’s best for you [and get whatever assistance you need], you’re automatically helping those you love,” Bennett said.
Seeking help is problem-solving, she said. It means you’re doing what you need to do to fix a concern, she said. By seeking professional help you also model healthy behavior to your kids. When Bennett’s clients worry if working with a therapist makes them weak, she asks them if they’d like their kids to reach out for help when they’re having a rough time. They reply: “Of course, I would.”
Seeking professional help is a courageous, compassionate and smart decision. Seeking help takes self-awareness, work and commitment. It means confronting challenges and working to overcome them — whether you’re seeking help because you have a mental illness or you’re feeling stuck. Aren’t these the very signs of strength?
Seek help if you need it. Support others in doing the same. In fact, as Howes said, “Imagine how strong individuals, couples, families, businesses and our nation would be if people felt free to ask for help when they need it.”
Strong guy photo available from Shutterstock