5 Things Therapists Wish You Knew About Mental Illness

Don’t let stereotypes keep you from being mentally healthy.
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Don’t let stereotypes keep you from being mentally healthy.

Ask any psychotherapist, and he or she can rattle off a laundry list of misconceptions about therapy and the reality of mental illness. In my own work as a therapist, I encounter many misconceptions my clients have, whether it’s about mental illness in general, their prognosis, or the role of therapy and medication. In honor of May as Mental Health Awareness Month, I asked colleagues and experts about common misjudgments and what they wished more people knew about therapy and mental illness.

If you’re struggling with your own stereotypes about mental health, consider these points.

01. Living with anxiety and depression is much more than ‘stressing out’ or ‘feeling sad.’

The one in five Americans who live with a mental health issue know that their symptoms are very real, not an exaggeration or an excuse. Some people believe that mental illness results from some sort of weakness or character flaw, notes the National Alliance on Mental Health. The truth is, mental illness results from a variety of factors, including environmental and biological ones. Coping with depression is more than feeling sad or lonely. “Shaking off a case of the blues” isn’t the solution to recovering from depression, anxiety, or any other mental illness for that matter. It interferes with a person’s social and occupational functioning and requires treatment by a professional. 

02. Treatment is a unique process that requires time and effort.

Treating mental illness is a complex process, one that must be tailored to each person’s unique needs. “It has to be managed just like any other illness such as diabetes or a heart condition,” says Elizabeth, a fellow therapist. “There is no magic bullet. It takes active work on the part of the client to find what works for them, whether that’s diet, exercise, enhancing relationships, getting more involved, antidepressants, or a combination of all of the above.”

A therapist will work with a patient help determine what course of treatment is best suited to what she’s coping with, guiding her through research-supported treatment methods. Treatment takes time and effort. Working together to make significant changes to one’s behavior and thoughts means it will be hard work. Some people ask if they can just take medication and skip therapy, but even finding the right medication and dosage with a psychiatrist can take months.

03. Recovery is more than ‘feeling better.’

While it’s a wonderful thing to feel better, it doesn’t mean treatment can stop cold turkey. The National Alliance on Mental Health explains that feeling better is a result of following a treatment plan. Stopping treatment at the sign of symptom relief can be premature. Continuing a treatment plan is important to sustaining reduction in symptoms, especially when it comes to medication. Never stop taking medication or changing dosage without talking to a doctor. Stopping medication, especially when it comes to depression, could increase risk of relapse, reports The Wall Street Journal. A therapist works with their patient to develop a maintenance plan as symptoms improve and will help determine when it is time stop treatment.

04. Other people are suffering from the same thing.

Many of my clients come to their first session so distraught because they think they are the only person who feels these symptoms. When they learn that their symptoms have a name and aren’t a sign that they are “crazy,” they feel much more hopeful than when they first walked into my office. And learning that there are effective treatment methods for their symptoms provides even more hope.

Another fellow therapist, William, says that he wishes his patients knew that they are not alone in their suffering. “This is the number one thing that I try to get across to them each session,” he says, “ Not only do I want them to know that there are other people in the world that suffer as they do, but I want them to know that I will sit with them and never leave them behind while they suffer. Time and again, I have been told by my patients that this feeling that they are seen and heard is the most curative factor they got out of therapy.” Living with a mental illness can be isolating and terrifying. Knowing that they are not alone in their suffering can make all the difference in coping and healing.

05. Making the call to schedule the appointment is the scariest part.

Researching a therapist and making an appointment can be intimidating for many reasons. “There can be many hesitations to enter therapy because it can signify an acknowledgment of challenges and suffering,” says Jessie, a therapist in Virginia. She says that the courage it takes to schedule the first appointment should not be underestimated.

“Therapy can be that safe zone where you can process and receive support where you might not be able to find it elsewhere,” she says. “Sometimes therapy can help write the map for you to journey through the suffering and reach the end destination, whatever it might be.” So while making that initial appointment can be one of the hardest things to do, it’s scheduling the start of an important healing process that will change one’s life for the better.

Whether you are thinking of starting therapy yourself or recommending it to someone you are close to, dispelling these misconceptions can help make the process easier and a little less intimidating. To learn more about common misconceptions about mental illness, visit the National Alliance on Mental Illness. To learn what it’s like to live with a mental illness, see the 2016 infographic from Mental Health America. Let’s end the stigma and help change someone’s life for the better today.

Photo Credit: Julia Hembree