Many experts looking for answers to the question of how to prevent events such as the Newtown school shootings have pointed to the need for better access to mental health services such as counseling. If we want people to use such services, however, we will need to stop stigmatizing the use of counseling services when we cannot sort out our thoughts and feelings on our own.
I got such help about 15 years ago, after finally realizing the emotional baggage I had been carrying around for the previous 25 years was not getting unpacked and put away without professional help. Seeing a psychologist to help me get my head straight about issues related to my father’s sudden death that had been bothering me since I was a teenager was one of the sanest things I have ever done.
In doing so, I became the second kind of what I think are two kinds of people in the world. The first kind are people who need professional counseling at some point in their lives to help sort out issues important to their mental health but don’t ever get that help. The second kind are people who need such help and then actually get it. I believe most of us fit into one of these two categories somewhere along life’s difficult road.
At one time or another, virtually all of us struggle with an issue that affects our behavior and mood, and is too complex for us to handle without an objective, outside third party skilled at this kind of difficult work. Some curveball of life shakes us to our psychological core, the old coping mechanisms just do not cut it, and we cannot figure our own way out of the hole. We need help; we don’t need it forever, we don’t need it for everything, but sooner or later most of us need it for something.
People often deny they need that kind of help, just as I did for years. They see admitting the need as a sign of weakness, or that getting such help suggests they may be mentally ill. The idea of sharing personal experience or feelings with a stranger, or giving anyone real insight into what they think, can be discomforting. They may lack adequate motivation to overcome these fears because they fail to see the real effect of their issue on their lives, and the lives of those around them.
Or we think we can figure the problem out for ourselves, because often we do, relying on the informal “counseling” of supportive friends and family. Yet most of us run into problems, feelings, mood disturbances, anxieties or other mental health issues that outstrip the abilities of friends, family and ourselves to handle without skilled, professional counseling. That’s when friends and family should be offering us only one bit of advice: get professional counseling.
Those who deny they need counseling the most vehemently are often the ones who need the help the most substantially, in my experience. Theirs is often the behavior having the most negative effect on family, friends and co-workers, and theirs is often the most limited insight. They are often the ones driving around in the emotional darkness without headlights, running over feelings of others, sometimes doing damage that leaves others needing counseling.
It takes courage to reach out for counseling help, whether to a pastor, psychologist, licensed clinical social worker, or any other professional counselor. Guards have to be let down, closely held and sometimes embarrassing secrets may have to be discussed, and old scabs will be pulled off. Most importantly, it takes real work; great counselors and successful counseling assist us in finding the tools we need to do our own work.
As a society and as individuals, we should view counseling as no different from getting any other kind of expert help for a problem we don’t have the expertise to solve alone. Just as we would use licensed plumbers and electricians to help us improve our homes, good counselors are plumbing help for the mind, and wiring help for the psyche. They are trainers for the development of our own emotional muscle fitness. Using them when necessary is an act of courage and smarts, not a sign of weakness.
Erik Steele, a physician in Bangor, is chief medical officer of Eastern Maine Healthcare Systems.