Professional therapists are looking to change the perception of mental health.
February is Psychology Awareness Month, and local psychologists say it’s a great opportunity to open discussion about the often-stigmatized topic.
“There’s just so much confusion about what we’re talking about, and sometimes it can be negative things like mental illness, disorders, conditions,” said Okotoks-based psychologist David Small. “Sometimes though, it can be positive things, it talks about wellness, mental health.”
He said essentially mental health refers to how an individual adapts to changing life circumstances. While some adapt easily, others struggle with things like stress or grief, he said.
All people experience some level of distress – an uncomfortable or unpleasant emotion in response to change, he said. For many, it’s a temporary state, but for some people it worsens over time, he said.
“Then we start talking about people having a mental health problem, and that’s beyond distress,” said Small. “They feel like fixing that change, having a positive impact on what’s happened to them, is no longer possible.”
He said when mental health issues are unaddressed for long periods of time, the problem could develop into more of a mental disorder.
Many of the triggers of mental health issues begin as natural responses to change, he said, like stress. When stress is prolonged it can become a concern, he said.
“You can see people often give up on self-care,” said Small. “They stop sleeping, they stop exercising, they stop maintaining relationships, they drop nutrition. When people feel overwhelmed, it’s these common-sense pieces that they don’t address.”
Of more concern than stress is its cousin, anxiety, he said. With anxiety a person has a perceived threat of danger or fear in a given situation that may not necessarily be realistic, he said.
“It tends to trigger a fight, flight or freeze response in us,” said Small. “There may not be a real threat, like with phobias or any other anxiety-related disorder.”
He said when stress or anxiety begins to move out of the realm of natural reaction and begins having a negative impact on life, it’s time to seek help.
It’s important people listen to their families and friends.
“If they’re saying you’ve changed, your thoughts are different, your feelings are much more intense, your behaviours are erratic or changing, or it’s impacting your life negatively at work or at school, then that suggests there’s a need possibly to reach out and access some help,” said Small.
He said sometimes the issues can manifest in a physical way, such as feeling nauseated or getting sick regularly, and so people often seek medical solutions to their problems. It’s not addressing the entire problem, he said.
“Counsellors can offer the social and emotional solution, because although a doctor may prescribe an anti-depressant, doctors can’t prescribe good relationships and healthy boundaries,” said Small.
He said once people give counselling a shot they often find it can help. Some of the stigma behind getting help is beginning to fall away, he said, which makes people feel more at ease when they reach out.
It’s important for people to know most psychologists are more interested in what’s healthy and what people are doing right than focusing on what they’re doing wrong.
There is no one-size-fits-all therapy, he said. Different clients will respond to different approaches, and the counsellor’s job is to identify the best way to proceed, he said.
“People are often walking in looking for different things,” said Small. “They may be looking for advice, or a more collaborative approach, or they may just want me to shut up and listen because they don’t have anyone else to talk to. We figure it out.”
He said it’s also important for people to “counsellor shop.” If a therapist doesn’t seem like the right fit, it’s okay to move on and find someone new, he said.
Okotoks resident Krista Clelland, who runs a private therapy clinic, Lift Psychology, in Calgary, agrees. She said there are a number of benefits to therapy, but each psychologist works differently and people need to find the right one.
She said people should look for a therapist who really helps them peel away the layers of what’s going on, and makes them feel comfortable in setting up a plan to achieve goals toward wellness.
“The right therapist can really help a person to make practical changes to their life, to learn more effective coping strategies, to shift their way of thinking to a more healthy and adaptive way of thinking, to help the person process certain difficult or intense emotions and traumas that might be playing a role,” said Clelland.
It’s not as scary as it once was to find help, she said.
“There have been some positive strides, in terms of de-stigmatizing and creating more opportunities for discussion, so it’s not such a taboo subject as it has been in the past,” said Clelland. “There’s definitely been progress over the last decade or more, but I think there’s still work to do.”
She said there are still some perceptions that people with mental health concerns are non-functioning, and it is often viewed in fear. People need to recognize mental health is no less important than physical health, she said.
“Having a mental health issue is no different than having some kind of medical or physical concern you would go to the doctor for,” Clelland said.