Who is Therapy For?

Many people who are struggling with anxiety, depression, and other common emotional difficulties in the US will never think to seek out a therapist, or will only do so as a last resort when all other efforts seem hopeless. This does not reflect any truths about therapy itself but rather how it is framed within our culture. In other regions, such as some South American countries, going to a therapist is seen in much the same way as going to the dentist--a common activity that people engage in as a regular part of their self-care routine.

The number one reason that people in the US do not seek treatment is that they want to try and resolve their issues on their own (Mojtabai et al., 2011). This reflects a deeply individualistic cultural mindset in which people are seen as both personally responsible for having struggles and personally responsible for resolving them. Consequently, some may view seeking help as an admission of ‘weakness’ for not coping on one’s own. Some people may also worry that seeking help somehow means that they must be ‘crazy’. This in part reflects the way popular culture typically depicts the most emotionally-distressed individuals as mental health patients--people who may be institutionalized--while ignoring that wide swath of the public that enters therapy seeking assistance for more commonplace difficulties. These stigmas are compounded by the lack of clear information about what it is that therapists actually do.

The truth is that seeking help does not make someone either ‘weak’ or ‘crazy’. We as humans are by our nature social beings who are interdependent on one another (Baumeister & Leary, 1995). We are hardwired to connect with others, and when difficulties arise in our relationships, we cannot help but be affected, sometimes in ways that may cause us to experience distressing symptoms. Just as our evolutionary programming makes it inevitable that we can be negatively impacted by our relationships, it also makes it the case that we can heal and grow through our relationships. Working with a therapist is a very specific type of relationship that allows us to deepen our self-awareness and enhances our capacity for authentic emotional connection with others. Therapy also helps us develop greater flexibility to make choices based on our own values, enhancing our capacity to face life’s challenges. Rather than being a venture that is solely relegated to those struggling with severe emotional distress, therapy is for anyone who feels like their life is not as fulfilling as they want it to be and wants assistance in making changes.

Thankfully, times are changing and it is becoming more and more commonplace for people to push back against the stigma associated in the US with help-seeking. Celebrities and athletes as varied as Jon Hamm, Demi Lovato, and Brandon Marshall have come out to speak about their positive experiences addressing emotional difficulties in treatment, helping to normalize the practice. Far from being an indicator of ‘weakness’, acknowledging a need for a assistance and pursuing it is a sign of wisdom about one’s own emotional needs.

References

Baumeister, R. F., & Leary, M. R. (1995). The need to belong: desire for interpersonalattachments as a fundamental human motivation. Psychological Bulletin 117(3), 497.

Mojtabai, R., Olfson, M., Sampson, N. A., Jin, R., Druss, B., Wang, P. S., & ... Kessler, R. C. (2011). Barriers to mental health treatment: Results from the National Comorbidity Survey Replication. Psychological Medicine, 41(8), 1751-1761