Mental Health: Why It’s Sometimes Hard to Seek Help
It is easier to ask for help once you debunk the stigma.
On a recent trip to The Home Depot, I wandered around the store for close to an hour searching for a pipe. I finally found it in the plumbing aisle and checked out. I didn’t really think much about this experience until I went to a women’s clothing store later that day. At that store, I walked in, asked the sales associate for the item, paid, and returned to my car. That whole experience took five minutes. Why the time disparity?
Obviously, because at the clothing store I asked for help. Why didn’t I do the same at The Home Depot? Why didn’t I simply ask one of the orange-vested employees for assistance and be out of there in 7 minutes?
At Home Depot, I believe I should know where to find an item. So asking for help would reflect a deficiency in my self-expected abilities. The result: wasting time searching for the item to avoid asking for help and feeling inadequate. At the women’s clothing store I have no such expectations. This makes asking for help easy and intuitive.
When analyzing my beliefs about shopping at Home Depot one thing becomes clear. They are completely baseless. I am not someone who frequents the store. There is no reason to expect that I would be able to locate an item. How, then, is my asking for help in any way a reflection on me?
Except in my own mind.
Comfort with power tools and building supplies are all part of society’s marketing of manhood (which I subconsciously absorbed and subsequently validated). So in my mind the ability to locate an item in Home Depot is representative of my status as a man. I should know where things are. This “should” belief makes asking for help an impossibility. With no such “should” beliefs related to locating items in a women’s clothing store, asking for help is easy and obvious.
When We Ask for Help
This same internal thought dynamic exists with regard to asking for assistance with life issues that one might encounter. There are certain areas of life for which people have no qualms reaching out to others, whereas there are other categories for which one believes seeking help reflects poorly on them as a person. While determination of which areas fall within each category is truly individualistic, I would like to highlight inaccurate beliefs related to one specific category that, unfortunately, deters one from seeking assistance: Mental Health.
It is my hope that addressing some faulty beliefs may encourage individuals to make the healthy choice of seeking help, rather than feeling the need to shoulder the burden on their own. Rather than expending immeasurable time and energy “roaming the aisles” of life looking for mental health and well-being, they may find the willingness to consult a professional who can assist them in their quest for a more mentally healthy existence.
Belief #1: “Mental health issues aren’t legitimate. Everyone has issues.”
False! As evidenced by the 947 paged Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fifth Edition (DSM-5) sitting on my desk, mental illness is real. Not only is it treated by psychologists and other mental health professionals, it is also treated by real doctors who went to medical school (psychiatrists). We have hospitals that are specifically geared toward treating these issues, units in general hospitals specializing in providing treatment for mental health issues, and the very same health insurance companies that reimburse for a broken leg reimburse for psychological issues. All this points to the fact that mental illness is real.
Also, anyone who has struggled with depression, addiction, PTSD, etc. knows how very real these issues are. While many people may experiences variants of some of these issues (sadness as opposed to depression, nervousness as opposed to anxiety, feeling compelled toward something versus being addicted to it), this does nothing to diminish the validity of an actual diagnosis. Being unable to get out of bed in the morning due to an overwhelming sense of sadness (depression), being unable to function due to using substances or viewing illicit materials (addiction), a pervasive feeling of being on guard and unsafe (PTSD), or other very real experiences that match the symptom list of various psychiatric diagnoses, are both genuine and legitimate.
Meeting the symptoms requirements for a mental health diagnosis is no different than meeting criteria for a physical diagnosis.
Belief #2: “____ doesn’t need treatment.”
The blank space above could be filled with: depression, anxiety, trauma experiences, mania, substance use, gambling, grief, school struggles, relationship issues, feelings of emptiness, issues of self-esteem, amongst a variety of other topics. The issue with the above statement is the use of the word “need.” Need connotes necessity. And truth be told, none of the above issues require treatment. Just like someone with cancer does not need an oncologist, someone arrested for a crime doesn’t need a lawyer, and someone whose car isn’t working doesn’t need a mechanic.
But if one is interested in addressing any of these issues, then making use of a professional can be extremely helpful. As has been said in legal circles: “He who represents himself has a fool for a client.”
Rather than asking “Do I need treatment?” try asking, “Could treatment be helpful?” keeping in mind that you could only make an informed decision with information about the issue at hand and the treatment available.
Belief #3: “I’m flawed because I am struggling.”
Imagine your best friend confides in you that she has recently been diagnosed with depression, is meeting with a therapist, and has begun taking an antidepressant prescribed by her psychiatrist. Is the first thought that enters your mind: “Wow! I can’t believe this extremely flawed individual is someone I consider my best friend!”? Probably not. Because you don’t actually believe that struggling is an indication of deficiency. Why, then, do you have such an opinion about yourself?
Possibly because you feel flawed regardless of your psychiatric challenges, and view these issues as simply confirming your self-evaluation. They fit with your self-view, so your belief must be true.
Another option is that your role models (parents, grandparents, teachers, mentors) in life never shared about their own struggles and you therefore believed that this was not part of their narrative. If those to whom you look up to never struggled (your own belief based upon of the information not shared), then it must be that struggling is not a part of successful people’s lives. Your belief of struggle = flawed individual is borne from this speculative view of these individuals.
A third, but by no means final option, is that you have a skewed view of what it means to be human. A person, in your mind, should be perfect. You equate people to objects. Just as a dish with a crack is broken, a person can be broken, too. What represents a broken human being? Someone who cannot check off all the boxes of what it means to be the perfect person.
This view of personhood has no basis in reality. “Perfection,” as Michael J. Fox once said, “is God’s business.” Your struggles don’t make you less of a person; they are what makes you the complete and unique person that you were created to be.
Belief #4: “Treatment won’t work/help.”
How do you know? Have you tried? If so, have you tried every form of treatment with every known provider? If you can’t answer yes to these questions, then try readjusting your belief to “I am skeptical about whether my treatment efforts will pay off.” This healthy skepticism can help you fully engage in treatment with your eyes wide open for change. You can evaluate the dynamic between yourself and your provider, the modality of treatment, and gauge whether these combine to produce helpful results. If you notice positive results, then you have benefitted from giving it a try. If not, then you have the opportunity to pivot to a different provider and/or therapeutic modality or simply return to your status quo prior to treatment. Trying something doesn’t mean you are stuck with it for all eternity. Evaluate through engagement, rather than blindly generalize through avoidance.
The Beatles, in their song “Help!,” provided a nice synopsis of this issue. You may be saying to yourself: “I never needed anybody's help in any way,” and that makes asking for assistance with mental health issues a difficult task. Then you realize that “now these days are gone, I'm not so self-assured.” Your present state of mind and functioning is no longer up to the standard you wish for yourself. Rethinking the situation, you “find I've changed my mind and opened up the doors.”
With your thoughts healthily adapted, you grant yourself permission to take action and take steps to improve your life by reaching out: “Help me if you can, I'm feeling down/And I do appreciate you being 'round/Help me get my feet back on the ground/Won't you please, please help me!”