As far as I can tell, most people (at least in urban places, even those with spare time) spend a lot of time stressed out and relatively little time working on taking care of themselves. Moreover, as I study my friends, I realize how few people are ever taught how to practice self-care, how to even name their emotions, or how to experiment in finding activities and rhythms that calm them down.
Therapy is just one way to work on mental distress. This post is a short, surface-level introduction to finding a mental health professional, what to expect from therapy and psychiatry, and several other key issues/questions. Hopefully it addresses some questions y’all might have. Please feel free to email more at <NML.Zoey@gmail.com>, and I will create an FAQ piece!
Working with a mental health professional (MHP) can help you process issues you are dealing with and find ways to help reduce and manage stress, depression—or whatever you are feeling.
Causes/etiology of mental distress
Feelings of well being—or mental unwellness—can be affected not just by genetics but also by myriad factors in everyday life: food and other substances your body digests, inhales, etc.; life events such s deaths, marriages, serious accidents, promotions; and lifestyle (e.g. do you sleep enough? Do you work or live in a stressful environment? Do you exercise? Are you stressed from always hiding gender or sexuality or from harassment?). Depression, anxiety, and other forms of significant mental distress can manifest after non-acute and sustained or single, severe stressors or distressing life events. They may even manifest when everything is going well.
Having depression, anxiety, and/or other mental health issues or disorders does not mean you are weak or crazy, nor does it mean that your genes are bad or that you are not as good as others. It is something many people experience—like the flu or back pain. Reputable sites associated with psychological associations list the symptoms of depression, anxiety, and other mental health issues (Depression: National Institute of Mental Health and American Psychological Association ; Anxiety: National Institute of Mental Health; American Psychological Association ).
Approaches to managing and reducing mental distress vary widely. While I encourage everyone to follow their gut and pay attention to their individual needs in helping themselves heal from traumatic events or manage everyday mental discomfort, I feel it is crucial to closely examine: the methods you use; whether they are truly effective; and how they affect you, other aspects of your life, and other people in your life. In my next piece I hope to address some common, but ultimately unhelpful and destructive coping mechanisms such as excessive drinking, drug use, and smoking (cigarettes), all of which can hurt you and those around you, and may actually contribute to depressive symptoms.
For now, I want to quickly outline a few somewhat more formalized methods of caring for yourself via seeking care from professionals.
Finding a Mental Health Professional (MHP)
I recommend attending appointments with several (at least 2-3) therapists/counselors to start with before deciding which to continue with for a longer time. Therapists are people too, and its crucial to find one that you connect with—who (approximately) fits your personality and you feel reasonably comfortable with. In high school, I attended first-appointments with three therapists and picked the one who intuitively focused in immediately on issues underlying the anxiety I was dealing with.
Some medical doctors and certainly most MHPs can provide referrals to psychologists and psychiatrists. Sometimes a MHP will refer patients to another MHP if they feel the patient is dealing with something that another MHP is better equipped to respond to. Lists of MHPs are often kept by some groups (such as LGBTI+/queer or polyamorous groups on Facebook). I will try to compile and publish (in a subsequent post) a by-city list as well. Googling and reading MHP’s profiles or asking friends (who you feel comfortable asking) are other ways to find MHPs who might suit you.
I myself experienced nervousness when I first saw a therapist as a teenager (for anxiety)—and even later on when some events in my life re-triggered that quality-of-life-impacting anxiety, and I concluded that several therapy sessions would allow me to sort through things better than I could on my own. Frequently, I hear similar stories.
I know friends who struggled even to set up appointments with therapists or other MHPs** because they so intensely internalized the stigma of seeking mental health care. Men, particularly, can feel weak—or fear they will be considered weak—if they seek mental health care. Moreover, in some cultures, men are discouraged from showing or exploring emotions, and as such they are less prepared to deal with mental distress.
LGBT+/queer people and other minority groups are often stigmatized and discriminated against, and the resulting stress and disempowerment increases mental health issues. Yet by the same token, there is legitimate fear of MHPs holding biases against LGBT+/queer people and others.
Finding an LGBT+/queer-affirmative therapist (or psychiatrist or help-line) is possible, however. There is an ever-growing list of such resources; I will addend several to this piece, and later publish a longer resource list.
What do therapists do?
There are many forms of what is known as “talk therapy.” Counselors/therapists are often trained in several forms, and will adapt their techniques to the individual’s client’s needs. Therapists might work with you on re-training your brain to reduce repetitive, negative thoughts (“I’m not worthwhile,” “I’m unattractive,” etc.). They may give you relaxation or meditation techniques. They will likely also help you process the struggles and questions you face in your life in order to better understand them and work through them.
LGBTI+/queer people may also seek a counselor’s assistance in coming out to family, to friends, or to themselves. Some therapists work with couples or counsel multiple people at once, meaning they can be useful in navigating inter-personal tensions and brainstorming techniques to work on these issues (including coming out, relationship issues).
The second part (published separately) of this post will address: diagnoses (when and why they are used, and issues with diagnostic codes); the difference between psychiatry and therapy; and confidentiality/privacy for clients of MHPs.
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