Why does it seem so much easier to see what other people might need than to see what we need ourselves?
I recently came across an article called, The Psychology of Realising That You Need Psychological Help, by Christian Jarrett of the British Psychological Society1. The article contains a study that concludes: “out of 9,000 patients, only one-third of people suffering from mental illness thought that psychotherapy could help them.”
Another study found that patients suffered “an average of 10.5 years before thinking that psychotherapy could help them, and participants said: the most difficult step towards starting treatment was deciding that psychotherapy might be beneficial.”
After Hugh’s accident, I was a wreck, but I managed the emergency, and I stayed “strong” for our two daughters. At least I thought I did. I could not shield them from the pain of seeing their father in a hospital bed in the ICU fighting for his life. So I told them what most parents would tell their children: “We can handle this. We’ll get through this together.”
Two years later—after three surgeries, over a year of rehab, job loss, seizures, quirky symptoms, and setbacks—we emerged from the darkest days of traumatic brain injury. Hugh’s condition was dramatically improved, and he wanted to do more. He wanted to get on his bike again; he wanted to work again. He wanted to take chances—chances that threw me into fits of panic.
It took me fifteen months of sleepless nights and a bad case of shingles to commit myself to counseling with a therapist—I’m so glad I did not wait 10.5 years! The thought of needing counseling made me uncomfortable. I truly believed that with time, I’d feel better. The opposite was true. Time made my problems worse. I became an over-protective mother, a hypervigilant wife, and my mind buzzed with anxiety every hour of the day and night.
Why did I suffer a long time before seeking help? Psychotherapy is defined in the Merriam-Webster dictionary as the treatment of mental or emotional illness by talking about problems rather than by using medicine or drugs. But the word “psychotherapy” conjures up other images. For one thing, the first part of the word is “psycho.” Our society has all kinds of other (not so nice) words for psycho and a major motion picture devoted to the name!
Who wants to admit they have mental health problems? We’d rather say, “I’m just stressed out.”
When I finally did seek help, I was fortunate to find referrals to the right kind of Licensed Clinical Social Worker and neuropsychologist—professionals who understood traumatic brain injuries and how they affect family members.
In therapy, I learned that there were concrete words for my condition and reasons behind my dark moods, edgy feelings, and negative thoughts. Psychotherapy helped me learn:
- What was really bothering me (ambiguous loss, loss of personal time)
- How to shift my thought patterns
- How to relate better to my family members
- How to forgive myself and others and reclaim my life
- And how to respond to my individual challenges with healthy coping skills.
Before I sought help, I didn’t want to be the person who couldn’t handle a difficult situation. I also didn’t see how talking to someone could help my situation or how I could put my feelings into words in a way that someone else could possibly understand.
When I finally did receive counseling, I realized I was wrong on all counts. My doctors and therapists helped guide my thinking in directions I could not find on my own. Learning about resources and relaxation techniques helped. Talking did help; it helped a great deal. Opening the floodgates to my grief felt like popping a giant blister—oh, what a relief!
And I came to understand that mental illness is no different than physical illness. Our mental health is part of our human condition, part of our overall health, driven by hormones, physical strain, and emotional upheaval.
My wish for every caregiver is that he or she realizes, sooner than I did, that seeking psychotherapy is not a sign of weakness but a sign of intelligence and strength, and that guidance from a professional can lead to an end to what feels like endless pain.
Don’t wait 10.5 years to feel better. You deserve to feel better today.