Today I’m going to be addressing the top six reasons why people who need help from a counsellor are reluctant to reach out and begin the process. These reasons are gleaned from my years of experience working with people who, after meeting, have asked themselves the question, “Why did I wait so long?”
Most people would probably describe themselves as busy. Many of us actually are. We may have multiple jobs, multiple hobbies, and multiple children, and all of these entail multiple demands. However, if we take a good look at our schedules, we may find that a good percentage of our “busy” time could be spent much more productively.
While I was working my way through university, I was employed by my school’s athletic department as an Academic Coach. Basically, my job was to help the student athletes avoid losing their academic eligibility to play for the sports teams. At the beginning of each semester, I would sit down with each athlete from each team and go over their course schedule, help them set goals, and if necessary teach them study skills and time-management skills.
The most common reason I heard from the students to explain academic problems was that they were just too busy to study or do homework. On the surface, this seemed legitimate. Practicing 4-5 days a week, playing games on the weekend, some of them working part-time as well, it seemed to make sense that they were just being stretched in too many directions.
In an attempt to make sense of these demands, I began to make out a weekly time budget with the students. I would tell them that the day starts at 8AM. This was usually met with looks and comments questioning my sanity. It turns out that many of them did not feel that it was necessary to get out of bed until at least 11AM. I suggested that the academic day ended at 10PM. Again, more looks.
Almost universally, after completing these time budgets, the students were dismayed to see how much free time they actually had. I remember one student, complaining that she just couldn’t handle the burden of her schoolwork due to time constraints, sitting with a look of embarrassed and bewildered shock when she became aware that in fact, she had 40 hours of free time every week.
Take a look at your own schedule. How much of your time every week is spent being busy? How much of it is spent engaging in the very activities for which you may need counselling help? Make a time budget and see what the results are.
For some unknown and brilliant reason, mental healthcare is considered differently than regular healthcare in Canada. While I can go see a doctor about my sniffles and the cost is largely subsidized by the government, the same cannot be said for my depression, anxiety, grief, etc. This leaves the sufferer on the hook to fund their own recovery. The lunacy behind this policy is fodder for another conversation, but the reality is that many people, especially these days, are feeling the financial pinch. Often, the stresses brought on by these financial pressures are large contributors to the burdens for which people need counselling.
However, similar to the discussion of time budgeting above, many of us throw away money on a daily basis that could be better used for more ennobling and self-actualizing pursuits. Consider smoking for example. A pack-a-day smoker may be spending upwards of $300 a month on the short-term relief of nicotine. That morning cup of coffee (and maybe the afternoon and evening one as well) add up fast. The amount of money spent paying for 369 channels of brain-draining reality TV and stylized drama merits mentioning as well.
The common link between all of these activities is that they bring immediate, short-term relief from stress, depression, and other problems. However, they also contribute to the source of those problems. If a person were to set aside $100 a month for activities that would actually bring real, lasting relief, they would be getting much greater value for their dollar. However, it requires taking the long-view, which is something that is very difficult when we are feeling the need for relief. We will return to this point below. Many counsellors offer a sliding fee scale based on income. I personally offer the first two sessions for 50% off the regular price so clients don’t have to sacrifice so much of their hard-earned money during the process of investigating whether I can even help them. After that, half-hour sessions are available for reduced fees. Many benefits companies have allowance in their extended health coverage for Registered Clinical Counsellors. Even if you can only make room for one session, it can help to reduce the pressure that is building. For now, take a look at your budget. Is there room in there for help?
Many people’s view of counselling is based on what the media has portrayed. They may expect to enter a large office with many leatherbound books, be asked to lay down on a European sofa, close their eyes and have a bespectacled, white-bearded knock-off of Sigmund Freud ask them about their mother. In reality, although there are mental health professionals who approach therapy that way, counselling is actually much more than that.
Will I ask questions about your mother? Absolutely I will. I will also ask questions about your jobs, your current and extended family, your experiences, your feelings, your goals and dreams, and probably even what you like to do for fun. However, I will also listen to you talk about whatever you want to talk about, I will teach you things if you want to learn them, I will coach you on conversations that you have been putting off or avoiding. I will talk to you about things that may appear to have nothing whatsoever to do with the reason you came to see me in the first place. That is the essence of counselling.
If done correctly, it is not frightening; it is comforting. It is not mysterious; it is enlightening. It is not creating dependence; it is empowering. If people are afraid to come to counselling because they believe that the therapist/counsellor will expose their darkest secrets and make them do weird things, they should watch less TV for starters, then they should give it a try.
Bad Counselling Experiences
As someone once said, 50% of doctors graduated in the bottom half of their class. A certificate hanging on the wall or letters behind someone’s name is not guarantee of anything other than significant student loan debt. I learned this the hard way. Not all professionals are created equal. This can be said in any field. Somewhere there is an honest mechanic who works as efficiently as possible. Somewhere there is a realtor who actually sells houses. Somewhere there is a doctor who reads medical research journals published after 1975. However, there are also mechanics who would cheat you out of your old age pension, realtors working at Starbucks, and doctors who do not even look up from the prescription pad when you enter their office.
Black and white thinking is an error that leads many of us to miss the boat on opportunities in life. I myself, when I was younger, had a few experiences with counsellors that disillusioned me and actually caused harm. Once, when working as an interpreter, I was assigned to accompany a man on a trip to a psychologist who was seeing him to help him adjust to a new job after he had been injured at his previous job. The psychologist asked a few practical questions about the shifts he was working, how his neck and back where feeling, and then closed the session less than 20 minutes after it started. I was astonished and in the parking lot afterward, the client for whom I was interpreting asked me through tears, “When is he going to ask me how I feel?” I was wondering the same thing. Experiences like this eroded my confidence in the counselling profession but they also fueled my own desire to give clients a better experience.
If you have had a bad experience with a counsellor in the past, find a way to pick yourself up and try again. Eventually you will find the one who fits you properly.
I don’t need counselling, I have a job. I don’t need counselling, I run a business. I don’t need counselling because I’m not having a nervous breakdown. One thing that our society has successfully ingrained into our collective psyche is that showing vulnerability is a sign of weakness. To ask for help is to admit your own inadequacy and inferiority. This nonsense could not be further from the truth. Everybody needs help when the demands placed on them have outpaced their resources. This is true physically, it is true financially, and it is especially true emotionally.
The stigma around seeking counselling seems to stem from the stigma around mental health in general. People may feel that going to see a counselor might be an indicator that they are “crazy” or losing it. In our society, we are ready to hand over the handling of our vehicles to mechanics, our finances to accountants, our health to doctors, the education of our children to teachers, but we cling to the idea that we should be able to handle our own mental and emotional health on our own.
The reality is that only the strongest among us are able to show vulnerability and that doing so is a sign of strength, not weakness. To ask for help when it is needed is much more respectable than to continue to spiral downwards when help is available. If you were drowning in the pool and the lifeguard offered a hand, would you refuse it? Most likely, the answer is no. Try to overcome the bias that our society has created around seeking help for mental and emotional problems and reach out and grab the hand that is waiting.
If you had a problem and the only treatment for that problem was exposing yourself to more of that problem, how quickly would you sign up for treatment? Let’s say you have a headache and the doctor told you that the best treatment for that headache was to bang your head repeatedly on the concrete wall, would you take his word for it or would you just hope it cleared up on its own? I think I know that answer. We tend to adopt the same strategy when it comes to dealing with our emotional problems. The symptoms of the issues that we face create barriers for seeking help for the issues themselves.
For example, if you are suffering from anxiety, especially social anxiety, and have a very difficult time trusting others due to a lifetime of hurt and harm, how quickly would you seek treatment that requires you to leave your comfort zone, meet someone new, and share with that person some of your innermost thoughts and feelings?
If you are depressed and feeling lethargic and hopeless and unmotivated, how quickly would you go online to find a counsellor, phone for an appointment, get up and go to the appointment, or follow through on any of the things that were discussed there?
If you have ADHD and have problems being organized, focused, following through, remembering obligations, and constantly changing plans, how likely are you to get around to making that appointment, or showing up for it once you’ve made it?
If you have marriage problems that stem around poor communication and constant arguing and tension, how likely are you to seek out a stranger, fearing that you may be exposed as imperfect, that the counsellor will take your partner’s side, or possibly face the reality that the marriage or relationship is doomed?
The examples are endless. I believe that the symptoms of the problems are the biggest barrier of all. I believe this is because there are those of us who, after having gone through this list, will see that we have the time, the money, that have the information, that have the resources, but will not go through with it. I have always said that if someone presents you with a problem and you offer a completely viable solution to the problem and they do not accept the solution, then they have not presented the actual problem.
Don’t let the issues that weigh you down keep you from standing up for yourself. You deserve happiness just as much as anyone else. No matter what you have been through, you can come out the other side victorious. If people are willing to work, no problem is irreparable. Don’t wait for things to clear up, instead get up and get some help. I love to see people freed from the guilt and shame that has painted them into a corner. Whether you reach out to me or another person, don’t wait any longer.