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everything I wish I had been told about therapy

Image: Sander Van Der Wel via Wikimedia Commons

Image: Sander Van Der Wel via Wikimedia Commons

October 10 is World Mental Health Day, so this week (October 5-12) we are observing National Mental Health Week in Australia. In light of this, guest writer, Jaen Wilson joins us to answer some FAQs about what ‘seeking help’ means and how to go about it. 

There has been a lot of great public discussion lately around depression, suicide, anxiety and general health. I think the recent and tragic passing of beloved comedian and actor, Robin Williams, has contributed, at least in part, to this rise in awareness. Now everywhere I look I see cries of  “Get up, stay chatty” and such, and this is just great.

However, it wasn’t due to a lack of public acceptance that I hid my depression from everyone for so long.

I think everyone knows that there is no shortage of reasons why keeping things bottled up is bad for you (Tumours, anyone?) but the fact is that many, many people do choose to keep things in for a wide variety of reasons. I guess there are two main sets of reasons why I didn’t seek therapy until I was 22. The first lot are truly personal and they are the reason I still don’t like to share these facts about myself with literally anyone. But the other set are more practical. I was terrified of seeking help because I did not know exactly what ‘help’ entailed. “Where do I go? Who exactly do I tell? Where would I even start? How much does it cost?” etc. Social media is constantly inundated with encouragement for seeking help, but I never truly understood how. I didn’t even know how to find out. It wasn’t after a pretty severe, depression related incident that found me in the doctor’s office, and I learnt about the current Mental Health Care system and what exactly is offered. Here is a non-comprehensive list of all the things I really wish I learnt about therapy long ago:

1: Where do I start?

A really good place to start (other than a trusted friend, of course) is with your doctor or any health care professional. A good doctor will listen without judgement and decide the best course of action for you. Remember that the pool of Mental Illness is wide and deep with several offshoots; there could be any number of things that are affecting your mental wellbeing and your doctor should be able to determine what the next course of action is, be it a Psychologist, a Psychiatrist, counselling etc. They will be able to give you advice and a referral.

2: How much does it cost?

Everyone in Australia is entitled to 6 free mental health sessions per year under existing Medicare legislation. All you need is a referral from a health care professional. These can be extended to 10 per year whilst still being free. It’s good to note also that these businesses don’t want to sap you of your money, and most will do their best to fiddle with the system to ensure you can get as many free sessions as you need.

3: Other Organisations

Many institutions (such as schools) provide free counselling, so it’s good to remember that they are there to help. If your problems are a little out of their depth, they can refer you to other places that might provide better assistance.

Most Government organisations also provide their employees with free mental health sessions, just do some research into your company’s policies to find out if it’s available. Or (if you feel comfortable) ask your manager.

4: What Will the Sessions be like?

Rocking up to my very first therapy session, I was absolutely petrified. I was sure that the whole room could have heard my heart beating. I was a nervous, sweaty wreck, petrified at the notion that I would soon be encouraged to talk to somebody about the secrets I had always kept so very close. Remember that freaking out is normal and that the person you are talking to will be anticipating it. The first session generally follows a question/answer pattern, and in the first lot of questions they will just be getting an idea of you, your family, networks and your life. They will ask you how old you are, questions about your family, your marital status, your friendships and occupation. That sort of thing. They will have in their hands the referral from your doctor, so they will already have an idea of why you’re there.

It’s important to remember that they are trained professionals who see new clients every day. They are trained in getting to the bottom of the issue with relative efficiency, and will ask the right kind of questions. They are there to help and to make you feel comfortable, they should be able to understand the root of issue fairly quickly and work through it with you, as a team. You can talk as little or as much as you want, but it’s always good to remember that you are in a safe, secure space and no one outside of the sessions ever has to know what goes on in them. They will not contact your family or your work and the only time anyone outside needs to know is if it is an emergency. Just breathe.

5: What if they don’t Understand?

Chances are, they will be very equipped in picking up whatever you are putting down, but it’s also common to change therapists if you feel like they aren’t clicking with you. This happens all the time and is super ok, remember that the most important thing is to get you better. The Therapist won’t be offended if you request to switch to another, it’s an everyday part of their job and no judgment will be placed :)

6: Pretty Skeptical about Therapy. What exactly will they attempt to do?

Most modern branches of psychology combine classical psychodynamic theories with modern Cognitive Behavioural Therapies (CBT). The former of these attempts to dig into your past, uncover old stones and discuss traumatic events (think Woody Allen movies). The latter attempts to equip you with practical, usable knowledge about how to become more aware of your behaviours as they are happen and control them. You will learn breathing exercises, practical exercises for stress relief and sleeping habits, active awareness and lessons about what exactly might be happening in your life and why. You will learn about habitual behaviours (both good and bad) and how to eliminate the bad and replace them with good. CBT, combined with Psychodynamic therapies will form the structure of most of your sessions. Together, you and your therapist will examine your life, talk through issues that might be bottled up, and give you practical advice on how to get better.

7: What if my Problems aren’t that Problematic?

Counselling sessions will follow a very similar pattern to psychologist/psychiatrist sessions, with a closer focus on healthy behaviours. Counselling is a good way to get things off your mind that might have been bothering you, but maybe are not in need of a psychologist or psychiatrist. Counselling is excellent for resolving conflict, such as within a workplace or family setting and simply to unload. Your counsellor will possess many of the same interpersonal skills that a psychologist does, and will treat your problems with respect. Remember, there is no qualifying issue that makes you worthy of sadness; If something is enough to make you sad, then that’s all that needs to be addressed. There is no shame in seeking help, no matter how ‘small’ the issue is. The important thing to remember is that you are bothered, and it needs to be taken care of before it all adds up to larger issues.

This has been very daunting for me to write and post, but I felt that it was important. I really wish this kind of information was more readily available, so please feel free to share this with anyone you think it may be helpful to. I know that my words do not speak for everyone and everyone’s experiences with therapy are different, but these were the things I learnt. And I wish that someone had told me earlier.

Important to remember also that first step, of just telling someone you trust, can be extremely intimidating. I know that I would never have even made it to the doctor that day without the love and support of my friends, so believe me when I saw that any support, no matter how small it may seem to you, really helps.

If you are experiencing issues with mental health and wish to seek help, you can contact:
Lifeline Australia on 13 11 13 or visit: https://www.lifeline.org.au/Get-Help/
Beyond Blue on 1300 224636 or visit: http://www.beyondblue.org.auJaen is a 25 year old feminist who enjoys drinking Sangria and watching 30 Rock. Here is the link to her blog: http://jaenwilson.wordpress.com

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