Way back in the day it was a rare thing for someone to go to therapy. These folks typically belonged to the “higher classes.” They were rich, considered educated and sophisticated, had friends and family who were part of a notorious social society, maybe even had parents who were famous or well known in the upper echelon of societal circles. Many “regular folks” considered therapy as a luxury or perhaps even a frivolous activity. Most people (of both classes) were not well versed in the process of therapy and largely lacked information regarding different therapeutic orientations or different schools of thought regarding effective therapeutic styles or focus.
Times changed and it didn’t take long before therapy was more (but still fairly limited) common. Seeking therapy for the treatment of problematic emotional experience associated with various mental/emotional psychological disorders (or diagnoses) expanded to include individuals who were severely mentally ill. These individuals were often incapable of living independently and were often psychotic and violent. Therefore, many were institutionalized, sometimes for a significant length of time or even for the remainder of their lives.
Fast forward a few decades and we become aware of the negative stigma associated with therapy and it was commonly believed that only severely mentally ill people went to therapy. This perception stuck and although the general perception of psychotherapy has improved significantly in the last 2 decades, therapy in general continues to carry a negative implication in many cultures and belief systems.
I DO think this is improving as individuals are more educated on the subject. By having more friends or family members who have pursued therapy and with the advancements in technology, people have more immediate access to therapy related information. Psychological health has also been included in the education curriculum typically starting in middle school. Some Grammar Schools touch on the subject with their students when teaching about bullying and processing conflict amongst the children and their peers.
I am not the first to envision a future culture that has embraced the idea that we might benefit as individuals and as a collective society from psychotherapy becoming even more mainstream. I would love to see therapy becoming part of the general approach to health (kinda like going for yearly physical exams and the typical twice a year visit to the Dentist). Similar to dentistry, our general mental health is related to our physical health and well being. I have observed an ever growing increase in the number of patients with significant health issues that are (at least somewhat related) to their emotional life. Most MD’s agree that stress and general mood and/or cognitive habits (optimism…) impact the prognosis when a person is faced with serious medical conditions, diseases, and disorders. The correlation between mental health and physical health is undeniable. So, why don’t we have check ups for this (like the Dentist)?
Hope is apparent, as I am observing a shift in the reasons people are now seeking therapy. When 10 years ago, people sought therapy for very serious or a more advanced progression of symptoms (in themselves and/or their children). I am pleased to see people now considering therapy for short term stressors and difficult adjustments (including transitions to different school or moving to a new area, retirement, grief, or relationship changes). It wouldn’t have been too long ago that therapy would never have been considered for these situations in life. In fact, our society tends to deny the need for help to manage our emotional life. The common response to emotional challenges has long been associated with weakness and dismissive responses, (i.e… “Get over it,”…”Shake it off,”… “Turn the other cheek,”… “You have nothing to cry about”… “Suck it up, buttercup!”).
It is no wonder, most consider the need for therapy or emotional support as a weakness, defect, or sign of incompetence. This perception continues to be a challenge. I have many, many, patients throughout the years that have wished they had pursued therapy earlier in their life before they had experienced some years of severe and ill repairable (or so it seems) symptoms that ultimately impacted multiple areas in their lives! Imagine, waiting to go to the hospital for a broken leg until years later, when now the scar tissue and the changes related to the persons body’s need to compensate for the injury. This body would exponentially require more and more intense medical inventions to return to the level of previous functioning.
Even my own personal history and view of therapy has shifted. I can see how the idea of therapy has shifted in myself and those close to me. When I was a kid, my family (like most families) had challenges with many translations and difficult situations. My parents never discussed the option of psychotherapy until one of my siblings began running away and getting into some very serious and dangerous situations. Even then, my sibling and my parents attended therapy. My siblings and I were not involved. Nor was it ever discussed as a possibility even though we were significantly impacted by this situation and the “ripple effect” of its complexity. As I recall, my parents only went to therapy once or twice before discontinuing treatment. My parents never discussed this or the process (or at least that I remember). Later in my life I learned that both of my parents initiated and attended therapy for a significant amount of time and progressed in their ability to manage emotion and challenging situations in life. They even became more open to discuss their experiences in therapy and gained an insight to their experiences and were better able to understand others perspectives. This was a shift and led to more meaningful conversations and a deeper relationship with a clarity I had not experience with either of my parents in the past! I never imagined I would witness such a significant shift in my parents and had long ago accepted the relationships with these limits! I don’t know what prompted the increased openness to this process…was it the evolution of a life, their exposure to others they had known who benefitted from therapy, TV shows (like Oprah), or was the change a direct result of their increased knowledge because I was in graduate school and had imparted some wisdom on them, inspiring an increased curiosity or openness? It is most likely a combination of all of these, and many more variables I did not list and maybe have never considered as contributing factors. Maybe this is what my mother meant (and at the risk of not being PC) when she expressed one of her many country colloquialisms (and there are many) saying, “It ain’t over ‘til the fat lady sings!”
I would like to believe that positive change is always possible, that people are ever growing and we can almost always amaze ourselves with possibilities!
So, good for us humans! We ARE evolving and more open to considering therapy as a reasonable option when we are in need of emotional support or help to learn how to manage our own stress, life situations, explore new ways to communicate, or to generally gain insight into our emotional life!
People are now identifying (sometimes even at the first session) that they recognize a need to process and develop a greater understanding regarding how their emotions (and sometimes thoughts and behaviors) impact their lives, beliefs, and values. It seems people are more comfortable with the role emotions have on their life choices, thinking habits, worldview, and their sense belief in their own abilities and potential for success in the future.
If you have been considering taking the plunge into therapy…imagine being a kid standing on the pier thinking about how cold the lake may be…the longer you stand at the edge, the more impossible the action seems! So, Now is the time!
Jump In, The water’s fine!!!