5 things I wish I knew about therapy when I was younger

·6 min read

I went to my first therapist when I was nine years old. I was in elementary school, I was bullied, and I was already exhibiting signs of depression and anxiety. I don’t remember much about the therapist — I know we drew pictures together, but that’s basically it. I do remember not understanding who this “doctor” was, or why I was there if I wasn’t sick.

It’s no wonder I was confused. Therapy has been stigmatized for generations, and misconceptions about it are deeply ingrained in our society. When I was growing up in the late 90s and early 2000s, I only knew one person who was in therapy. Plenty of my friends and their families went through hard times, but I didn’t know anyone else who talked openly about going to therapy.

Despite slowly-shifting attitudes toward mental health care, it’s still a largely inaccessible resource. According to Mental Health America, almost a quarter of adults with mental illness can’t access treatment, a number that’s held steady since 2011. That’s part of why it is so critical to destigmatize therapy (and other forms of mental health care) and encourage folks who think they might benefit to seek it out.

I’ve been in and out of therapy since that first appointment in my childhood, but as a 30-something today, it’s something I choose enthusiastically. I look forward to my weekly sessions, knowing that time is dedicated to my mental wellbeing.

There is plenty I wish I had learned about therapy earlier, but I’m grateful to know it now. Here are a few of those lessons.

You don’t have to be “broken” to see a therapist

Many of us learned from the media, our peers and even our families that if you go to therapy, something must be wrong with you, or that therapy is only helpful during times of crisis. This is miles away from the truth — and it does real harm to people who avoid seeking help because of social stigma.

There are lots of reasons to see a therapist, whether you’re seeking help for a particular problem, you believe you have a diagnosable mental illness that needs treatment or you just want support for your day-to-day life. None of it means that anything is wrong with you. In fact, in a culture where mental health care is still stigmatized, it actually shows a lot of strength and self-awareness to reach out for support.

Therapy is healthcare

One of my first therapists would repeat the refrain “therapy is healthy” whenever I expressed my own internalized shame about needing help. There’s a major misconception that mental health doesn’t require as much tending as physical health. But in my experience, therapy is more than healthy: it’s healthcare, another way of investing in your own wellness in both the short and long term.

We could all use a check-in with our emotions from time to time, something that’s increasingly recognized. Federal law prohibits health insurance issuers from imposing limits on mental healthcare that are “less favorable” than those imposed on other medical benefits. And what’s more: taking care of your mental health might contribute to good physical health. “Researchers continue to find new links emphasizing the value of taking care of mental health to ensure good physical health, often called the mind-body health connection,” according to the American Psychological Association.

Therapy should be affordable

The idea that therapy is pricey is unfortunately not a myth. I have a clear memory of my father asking me, “Am I paying for that?” once when I was on my way out the door to a therapy appointment. (I was a teenager, and yes, he was.) Early on, I heard the consistent message that therapy would always break the bank. I assumed that this meant it wasn’t worth the cost.

It’s true that mental healthcare can be expensive, and that lack of access to comprehensive health insurance or sufficient funds is a huge barrier to therapy for many people. I’ve experienced both ends of the therapy-cost spectrum, from seeing expensive therapists who didn’t accept insurance to those covered by a low copay. Ironically, whether or not I could afford therapy has really impacted my mental health; it was extremely stressful budgeting for those non-covered therapists, even when I had the privilege to be employed.

Therapy should be affordable (or free, in an ideal world), but for too many people, it’s not. When we talk about the importance of therapy, we can’t forget that it needs to be financially accessible in order to make a difference.

There is no one “right” kind of therapy

I used to have an extremely limited understanding of what happens in a therapy session. I’m sure you’ve seen this representation in the media too: the patient lies on a couch, a tissue box nearby, while a bespectacled doctor sitting across from them asks, “And how do you feel about that?” That kind of therapy was never appealing to me, and it’s also not quite accurate.

In addition to traditional talk therapy, I’ve worked with therapists who specialize in a range of treatment types, like cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), which helps you change your thinking in order to change your behaviors, and dialectical behavioral therapy (DBT), which helps manage tough emotions. Some people have success with art therapy, music therapy, or animal-assisted therapy. A former therapist of mine even specialized in yoga therapy. If you’re curious about types of therapy beyond the traditional, a directory can help you figure out which type might be best for you.

It’s okay if therapy isn’t for you

Therapy has been life-changing for me and for lots of folks I know, but that doesn’t mean it’ll have the same effects for everyone. Some folks have had bad experiences with therapy and aren’t interested in returning. Others simply don’t get much from it. All of that is okay; no form of care will be a perfect match for everyone.

Investing in your mental health can look like any combination of therapy, medication, movement, rest, socializing, music, interacting with nature or animals, and countless other forms of self-care. And if therapy isn’t part of your mix, that’s perfectly fine.

The bottom line

Therapy is a valuable but underutilized tool in a mental health care routine, thanks in part to the messages many of us learned about it when we were younger. But if you’re curious about whether therapy might benefit you, it’s never too late to correct the misconceptions and give therapy a try.

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