Stigma: a mark of disgrace associated with a particular circumstance, quality or person. I didn't tell anybody when I attended therapy in my 20s. It wasn't that I kept forgetting to mention it whenever the topic came up in conversation. Nor was it because I thought that it was a private thing to do and that it was nobody's business. And it wasn't that I was afraid people would ask me to explain my reasons for going. My world had fallen apart very publicly when my football career ended at 24, so the option of keeping that to myself just wasn't available. My reason was very simple. I kept quiet because I was ashamed.
How had it come to this? How had I let things go so far off the rails that I was now paying a mental-health professional to help straighten me out? And, bad enough that things had got to that stage, I wasn’t going to make matters worse by exposing my failings to those around me. Because, as everyone knows – or so I thought back then – requiring therapy is confirmation you’re fundamentally flawed.
World Mental Health Day was marked in many ways by many people throughout the country earlier this month. Some shared personal experiences; others called for changes in the way treatment is provided. There were calls, as there are all year round, encouraging people to talk more openly about how they are. And there were several campaigns aimed at reducing the stigma that is still one of the greatest barriers to people accessing support. In Ireland, when it comes to this issue, we have a long way to go.
Requiring help with your mental health is still seen by many as a source of shame. When I first spoke publicly about attending therapy, years after I first went, four friends contacted me to say they had done likewise. They followed it up by telling me to keep it to myself. At least they went, though. In every county in this country there are people who are in need of support but are adamant that even asking for it is a sign of defeat.
Ride it out?
It’s heartbreaking to watch a loved one really suffer, and even worse hearing them explain why they won’t seek help. What if work finds out? They’re bound to use it against me. What if my friends hear about it? I don’t want to be treated as if I’m different. What if my partner knows? They’ll probably leave me. I don’t want the neighbours looking at me crookedly. Yep, the best thing to do is nothing, and just ride it out.
If you’ve been through this experience you know how difficult it can be for everyone – but now imagine if the person who’s suffering is an adolescent. And what’s obstructing them from getting help is the attitude of their parents.
I know, having sat in both the client and the therapist's chair, how beneficial and transformative therapy can be for young people
I’ve no experience of being a parent. What I do know, having sat in both the client and the therapist’s chair, is how beneficial and transformative therapy can be for young people. At the moment, though, not everyone is entirely open to it.
I often get asked what “type” of teenagers I work with and what “type” of parents I meet, as if they share traits or characteristics that set them apart from any others. I always aim to answer without being rude or dismissive, but sometimes the insinuation gets under my skin. There’s still an undertone of judgment for people who seek the help of professionals, but it should be the opposite when it comes to parents who do this for their kids. Additional support is a wonderful gift to give a person you love, but it’s not so straightforward for many when it comes to providing it for their own children.
Shame and guilt
Sometimes shame and guilt get in the way. How come it’s our son who has this issue? Why is nobody else’s daughter having this struggle? And what are we doing wrong ourselves that we can’t make everything right? It may feel like the last thing you want to do if you’re questioning yourselves this way, but maybe a nonjudgmental, supportive outsider is just what is needed. I once thought that seeing a psychotherapist was a statement of failure, but I’ve come full circle now that I know what’s actually involved.
When you work in this field you see the stigma everywhere. There are numerous ways to illustrate it, but the point is still the same: unless we work harder to reduce it people will continue to suffer. They’ll deny themselves the help they need for fear of judgment of others, while inadvertently influencing loved ones to think the same way. It’s precisely the message that adolescents shouldn’t be hearing.
The type of teenagers I see are like any others. My aim is to understand them, not to change them; to support them, not to shame them – and the same goes for working with their parents. It’s hard to be an adolescent, and it can be tough to parent one, so opening yourselves up to professional help is the right way to go. You do it when it comes to your family’s dental or physical health, so just do likewise when it comes to this area too.