The Stigma of Therapy

It’s nothing new to hear that there continues to be stigma that plagues mental health, and with that comes certain misconceptions associated with mental health therapy. I thought it might be helpful to break down some of the common myths of therapy as we try to chip away at the unfair beliefs society continues to hold on the field and those affected by it.

Myth: You have to have “serious” issues or be seriously “screwed up” to go to therapy.

Actuality: Some people believe that you must be diagnosed with a psychological disorder or be profoundly struggling in order to seek and benefit from therapy. Research has shown that most couples, for instance, wait about six years before getting help. Unfortunately, waiting typically only exacerbates problems, making them a habitual pattern that is only more difficult to untangle and resolve. In reality, therapy can be helpful to anyone wanting and willing to make changes in their life. I often encourage people to look at therapy as an additional tool they can pick up and use throughout their life, rather than a last-ditch effort when a major problem won’t go away.

Myth: A therapist gives advice and problem solves for you.

Actuality: More often than not, a therapist won’t give advice nor will they solve their problems for you. Therapy can range from prevention to crisis-management to maintenance and typically consists of thoughtful reflection and introspection, psychoeducation, gentle confrontation, and guided direction. While I take an empathetic, collaborative, and supportive approach, I don’t give advice. I believe that people are the experts in their own lives and that in reality, advice isn’t all that impactful. Besides, you probably get enough warranted (and unwarranted) advice in your life from personal relationships, so why throw in some more from your therapist?

Myth: Talking to family and friends is just as impactful as talking to a therapist.

Actuality: While social support is important for everyone, a therapist offers much more than just listening and talking. In therapy, you can let it all hang out. With friends, you’re more likely to censor yourself, either because you don’t want to hurt their feelings or  maybe you don’t want to portray yourself or others in a bad light. You may avoid, sidestep or sugarcoat some topics because you know your friend so well and anticipate how your comments might affect him or her. Also, friends typically go back and forth discussing each other’s issues. When you’re in therapy, however, each session is devoted to you. Therapists can recognize behavior or thought patterns objectively, more so than those closest to you. A therapist might offer remarks or observations similar to those in your existing relationships, but a professional’s help may be more effective due to their timing, focus or your trust in their neutral stance.

Myth: A therapist will only make you talk about your past and blame your problems on your childhood.

Actuality: While some therapists do take on a more childhood-focused approach, most will be interested in the entire picture: your present concerns, relationship dynamics, past experiences, and future plans and goals. Some therapists may choose to not even delve into the past, wanting to only focus on the “here and now”, present solutions, and short-term goals. Furthermore, therapy should maintain a focus of your role in the situation, rather than a blame stance on parents and others, because that allows you (the client) to be empowered, self-aware, and ultimately, in control of your life.

Myth: Marriage and Family Therapists (MFTs) only work with married couples and families.

Actuality: MFTs are actually trained to work with all dynamics: individuals (children, adolescents, adults), couples (dating, pre-marital, married, divorcing) and families (parts of, immediate, extended). The key is in the “systems” perspective used, meaning that MFTs will observe and address the client’s (or clients’) role in the presenting issue and how it plays out in their relationships: personal, familial, or professional.