When I was in grad school, we had to attend 10 therapy sessions of our own, because the best way to learn is to experience it for yourself. I remember very adamantly telling my counselor that I was in therapy because it was required for school, not because “anything is wrong.” And, because she was a great counselor, she gently called me out.
“It seems like it’s important to you that I know nothing is wrong with you.”
“Uh, well, yeah. I’m fine, I’m just here because school said I had to be.”
“Do you only want to work with clients when there is ‘something wrong?’”
“Uhhhh, no. I mean I don’t think there’s anything wrong with being in therapy. I think it's really good for you, just like going to gym is really good for your body. And I wouldn't stop going to the gym after I got fit, so I would still go even if there wasn't something wrong. And I like doing personal growth work with my clients as well as the intense stuff, so I see it as the same thing.”
“Isn’t it funny how we can understand something in our minds, but the reaction still lives in our hearts? It sounds like you’ve been affected by that pesky stigma that exists around therapy.”
If you’re following us on Facebook, you’ve heard by now that May is Mental Health month, and that we’re spending the month pledging to be stigma free here at Therapy Austin. It’s worth acknowledging that the stigma has affected us all, often in ways that are so subtle, we might not recognize the effects until much later.
This idea that it’s weak to seek therapy, or that if you’re in therapy something must be “wrong with you,” is so pervasive, and also so dangerous. Let’s pretend the same stigma existed with seeking help for physical illness, because I continue to be amazed at how differently we treat our physical health and our mental health. If I had pneumonia, and a stigma existed around seeking medication and the care of a doctor, I might be discouraged from getting the help I needed. And I might get worse. I might even die! The idea that we might shame someone for getting medical treatment is pretty ridiculous, but we do this with mental health regularly.
But, mental illness isn’t necessarily all that different from physical illness. It’s common, it’s disruptive to our lives, sometimes it can be easily treated and sometimes treatment can be more involved. Mental illness can be as serious and life threatening as physical illness, and when we’re discouraged from getting treatment because of what the world might think of us, our safety can be at risk. So how do we fight something that is so deeply ingrained in our world, and so incredibly unhelpful to so many of our friends, family members and coworkers?
Check your language
This is often the way that we can accidentally perpetuate a stigma. We tend to use psychological terms to express eccentricities in ourselves or others, which can be really hurtful to someone who is really suffering from from mental illness. For example, have you ever heard someone say that their friend is “so schizophrenic” because they had a mood swing and seemed like they had one attitude one minute and a different attitude the next? First off, mood swings can be totally normal and appropriate and we all have them. Far be it for us to condemn someone for experiencing a change of heart. Also, schizophrenia is actually not even the disorder of someone whose personality “switches;” that’s a dissociative disorder that’s often the result of severe trauma. We don’t want to feed into these myths that exist around mental illness. Here’s a fun game: imagine telling a friend that they were “such a cancer patient” if they were lethargic or unwell. I’m willing to bet that feels pretty… gross.
Know your facts
One in five Americans suffer from mental illness. That’s 20%! When you’re hanging out in Ethos or Thunderbird Cafe, or wherever your cool locally-owned Austin coffee place is, count the people within earshot and ask yourself how many of them, statistically speaking, suffer from mental illness. Now imagine saying one of those sentences that invalidates and shames mental illness.
“Wait, I have to make sure I put all my change back in the right change pocket of my wallet. I know, I’m so OCD! Haha.”
The people who heard that sentence heard a message that OCD is eccentric, keeps you organized, and is essentially no big deal. They might even think you’re saying that it’s cute and quirky. 1 out of 5 people who can hear you are silently living with their illness, and may be worried what people might think of it. There might be a person within earshot who really suffers from OCD (it’s common, approximately 3.3 MILLION Americans have been diagnosed!), and they’ve been late to work enough times that their job is in jeopardy, because they had to check the locks 67 times before they felt safe enough to leave their house. It’s almost as if they told you that, and you told them it was funny. I can almost hear you telling me “I would never do that!”
We can help bring a sense of normalcy to mental illness by learning more about it, talking to those who suffer from mental illness, and understanding the ways that we can be compassionate and caring toward them. The National Alliance on Mental Illness is a wonderful resource. Therapy Austin clinicians will be wearing green and enjoying the sunshine on the NAMI front lawn this Saturday the 21st, listening to live music and joining the conversation of how we can keep fighting to end the stigma from 1130-130.
There is such strength in seeking the help you need and deserve. No man is a mental island, and we’re here to help you when you need, with knowledge of mental illness, compassionate understanding of what you’re going through, and a safe non-judgmental space where you can feel more free of the stigma. Check out our Get Started page to request an appointment!