Addressing mental health can be a difficult topic for many, especially when opening up doesn’t come easy. Here’s a skeptic’s guide to starting therapy — with all questions answered
Mental health has been topping priority lists of many, but Covid-19 has frontlined it like never before. Needless to say, the uncertainties and anxiety brought on by this unforeseen situation have impacted our emotional well-being. Yet, a lot of us are still skeptical about starting therapy, unclear when to start, and worry about when to stop. Let’s get all your mental health questions answered by therapy champions, graduates, and experts.
Clinical psychologist Ashita Mahendru, who has seen a major influx of clients in both private and government set-ups as well as online mental health helplines, says, “Those who are skeptical about whether or not they need to seek help, must watch out for warning signs like disturbed sleep, changes in appetite, fatigability, loss of interest in most or all previously pleasurable activities, sadness, worthlessness, loneliness, negative thoughts, irritability, and frequent anger outbursts. Also look out for feelings of frustration, anxiousness, restlessness, confusion, frequent forgetfulness, difficulty maintaining personal hygiene, poor self-care, and having to put serious effort into getting out of bed in the morning.”
Kolkata-based psychologist and founder of online psychotherapy platform EduPsych, Ruchi Bakhai, is on a mission to make mental health a coffee table conversation. She observes, “People often wonder if they need to sign up for a trial-and-error method to find the right therapist. The thought of it might seem quite overwhelming but honestly if we allow ourselves a few moments of research or understanding, then it is easier. When we start knowing what we want with regards to the way we want to be helped, it becomes a lot easier to find a therapist,” she says.
To everyone contemplating ‘Should I go for therapy or should I not?’, ‘Can I manage this on my own or can’t I?’, ‘What would the world think of me if they find out about this?’, Bakhai says our survival instincts and our bodies are engineered to help us fend for ourselves in every field of life, and it also makes us realise when is it time to shut down, relax and get help; so listening to yourself is the only way to know.
Bakhai adds a lot of her clients reach out to her after failed attempts to receive support from friends, family, and acquaintances. “These people are not able to provide the kind of support my clients need because they aren’t trained to help them the way they need. That’s when they come to understand that they may need professional help, and are able to overcome the stigma attached to therapy,” she says.
Such a point came for instructional designer and content specialist Angona Paul after a particularly horrible email exchange, where her boss was unbelievably rude and cast aspersions on her integrity.
“It triggered a panic attack and I realised that I needed help to try and manage myself, my reactions, and do something about the paralysis that used to hit me after such interactions,” she recalls.
Even when therapy started, Paul was very skeptical about medication. “But then the physical impact was too stark to ignore — palpitation, dry mouth, weight loss. I lost 11 kgs in a week at one point.” Paul was in a different organisation in Kolkata at the time, when she began her mental wellness journey. She’s not in therapy anymore. “I don’t think anyone other than your therapist or you can tell you when to stop, really,” she adds.
It’s crucial to seek help from a therapist, says Paul, because anxiety is not “just a phase” or “worrying too much.” “Your brain and body need expert advice and help to function during this time. I was amazed how medication helped me,” she explains.
Anirban Saha, who is pursuing M.Sc. in data and knowledge engineering from Otto-von-Guericke Universität in Magdeburg, Germany, sought help from the university’s psycho-social counsellor, when he realised whenever he has discussions with a new friend from Afghanistan, it took a negative turn. “My choice of words was rude, and I felt I was hurting him,” he says.
During the pandemic, the institute where Saha started working, ran short of funds. He was living with a brother-like flatmate. “After he left in June 2021, it was a little difficult for me to live alone. There were times I’d randomly break in tears. I noticed that at times my instinctive reactions were very different from who I perceive I am. Things started becoming weird and during my thesis proposal, and I had a bad anxiety attack,” he recounts.
Therapy has made Saha more aware of myself. “I can identify my feelings a little better and can think of dealing with them in alternate ways. It did not help me manage anxiety attacks. But more awareness about myself has lessened the number of anxiety attacks I have had,” he says.
For Srishti Vats, who began as a listener on 7 Cups, a website that offers free online support to emotionally distressed people by helping them connect with trained listeners and went on to study psychology during the pandemic, the realisation came after reading an article on depression, and relating to it.
“My mother had passed away when I was in my teens, and I blocked her thoughts and memories. After reading the write-up, I realised I needed help to process some of the traumatic childhood experiences and enrolled in a CBT therapy course, and that changed the course of my life. It really helped process a lot of things, and that is when I decided to take up the subject to study it further, and pursue a career in psychology,” she says.
She says therapy provides a safe space for people to talk about grief, relationships, uncover their strengths, challenge negative beliefs, unhelpful thought patterns, or any life situation that can cause significant distress. “It takes a lot of courage to reach out and ask for help. It can also be difficult to open up to the person in front of you since there is a lot of stigma attached with being emotionally vulnerable. I believe the first step is to learn what therapy is and how it works, then locate a skilled therapist, and contact them when you are ready,” she suggests.
Vats says there’s no right time or specific reason to go and see a therapist. “We all are unique in our own ways and there can be many reasons for seeing a therapist and every reason is valid and important enough,” she adds.
According to her, a person’s time in therapy does not have to be set in stone. It varies depending on the cause for therapy, the state of their mental health and the severity of the difficulties being addressed. “The stressors that previously impacted them in a particular manner would no longer have the same effect on them, and they would be better equipped to deal with the situation utilising the skills learned in therapy. If you believe you have met your therapy goals, you and your therapist can discuss and work out a strategy for successful termination,” she explains.
Every person is different, says Mahendru, and so is every psychotherapist. Therapists come from different schools of thought. “Check their work profile first, connect with them, and ask them about their expertise. Therapy can go from one long session to an average of 40 sessions depending on your need and on factors like severity and type of mental illness, chronicity, resilience of client, support system, day-to-day stressors and cost limitations,” she explains.
Therapy is like a mental spa or a mental gym. There is absolutely no harm or shame in seeking help and prioritizing your mental health. The well-being of the mind and body goes hand in hand. If your mind doesn’t work properly how will your body move?