My husband and I recently had our first child. We were two lifelong, career-minded singles when we met and had very few friends with children. When I got pregnant, I felt sick and stopped going to social events. People must have asked my husband dozens of times “How is Chantal doing?” He would share the latest: her nausea is horrible, and she can barely eat; the heartburn is keeping her up at night; she’s exhausted and sleeps all day; she’s developed a gallstone; the delivery induction failed, and so on. To his surprise (and to mine), people would immediately respond with some pregnancy or delivery story of their own: “My wife got a gallstone too when she was pregnant.”
“I was pregnant 50 years ago, but I still remember the heartburn. It was awful.”
“My induction attempt failed, too, and they sent me home to wait.”
We couldn’t believe it! So many people we knew had gone through similar experiences. How come we never heard of these things before? we wondered. Now, I realize that the reason is most folks just don’t talk much about their problems; they figure they’re supposed to muddle through on their own.
Why People Avoid Professional Mental Health Treatment
Many of us have a friend or a family member who tends to complain a lot; but if you stop and think about it, in general, people don’t talk too much about their problems. We’ve been taught to be pleasant and polite and deal with our problems ourselves. Why is that? Why do most people keep silent about the emotional difficulties they have and avoid mental health treatment?
Pride. Some people really don’t like to admit that there’s ever anything wrong with them. Somewhere along the way, they learned or developed the idea that if they have a fault, made a mistake, or don’t feel happy and strong all the time, then it must mean something quite bad about them. These are usually the same people who are deathly afraid of failure or oversensitive to other people’s opinions of them. Usually, underneath that are some core insecurities or a mistaken belief that strong people take care of their problems on their own. Here’s a little secret: strong and successful people regularly utilize coaches, consultants, therapists and clergy because they know it helps.
Fear. Sometimes people avoid mental health treatment because of fear of the unknown. It’s something they’ve never done before; they don’t know what to expect. It feels a little scary. But mostly, my clients come to therapy with a different fear: the fear that something is so wrong with them that it can’t be fixed. I love seeing the look on people’s faces when I say to them: “This is a pretty common problem; and if you participate in therapy, you’ll start feeling better fairly soon.”
Learned Helplessness. I often wonder how some people realize they have a good amount of control in their lives and others believe that life just happens to them. Learned helplessness is when someone thinks their efforts will be in vain; so they avoid trying. Another reason people avoid mental health treatment is because they think it just won’t work. But in the vast majority of cases, it does work! Quite well even.
Breaking Through Mental Health Stigma : Speaking Up Can Free You
Remaining silent about emotional and psychological problems robs us of health, happiness and connection in several ways.
First, it isolates us and prevents us from receiving needed support and information. Many times, someone you know will have gone through something similar and can offer not only some uplifting words of encouragement, but tips and resources that helped them (and might help you too!).
Second, by sharing your story, you give other people permission to share theirs. And you model for them that it’s OK to be human, and sometimes life can get messy. It’s not the end of the world; it’s just part of the journey. Often, when I’m working with a client who feels suicidal and hopeless, I share with them the two times in my twenties when I seriously considered suicide myself. My clients are always surprised to hear that and want to learn how I moved from those times of deep depression to the joyful and healthy life I lead now. So, I tell them my story, and they begin to see that this is possible for them, too. Give yourself permission to be imperfect because we all are!
Third, when you let stigma stop you from getting professional help, you prevent something wonderful from happening to you: getting better, feeling happier and having better relationships!
And lastly, when you tell your story, you begin to realize that you are indeed ”normal” because everyone has had some kind of mental health issue at some point in their lives. By realizing this, you may finally begin to accept and love yourself, to connect with the idea that you can have problems and be an awesome person at the same time. You begin to see that you can be strong, even if you lose your footing and feel weak. All of it is part of the human journey of life!
This post was written as part of the 2014 GoodTherapy.org Mental Health Awareness Month blogging event.