It’s no secret that individualism is a characteristic of American culture. People take pride in achieving goals and handling matters on their own. However, it is because of this mindset there is a negative stigma associated with going to counseling.
Seeing a therapist doesn’t mean you’re damaged, and you don’t need to have a mental illness or disorder to visit one. Seeking professional help is not a sign of weakness, nor is it a negative resort to sorting out your problems. After all, people work in groups all the time to figure things out so why should asking for assistance when it comes to personal circumstances be perceived negatively? It is unfortunate that this stigma still remains in society because the benefits of going to a therapist are positively life-changing.
At the same time, it’s imperative that we remember that seeing a counselor is far from easy. The most challenging part is to acknowledge that you might need some help and thus decide to making the initial appointment.
Last fall, I made a call to meet with a therapist at CSUN’s University Counseling Services (UCS) for the first time. I had toyed with the idea for a few semesters because some things were becoming difficult for me to deal with on my own, including anxiety from school. But I frequently found myself “too busy” to call, let alone finding time to pour my soul out to some trained stranger.
Telling the receptionist I wanted to make an appointment for “psychological counseling” was tough in and of itself, but dealing with the feeling of defeat after ending the call was even more mind-boggling. Was I truly unable to solve my own problems?
Throughout the process, what’s interesting is that my therapist never felt that she needed to “solve” my problem. My therapist never imposed her views on me, but rather clarified my sentiments and asked me questions that guided me to answers I had within myself.
In the end, it wasn’t so bad. In fact, there was nothing bad about it. There was nothing bad about gaining a refreshing degree of self-understanding that helped me grasp my personality and realize why I act the way I do in certain situations. And there was nothing bad about figuring out how to take steps toward improving myself in areas I wanted to develop.
UCS offers eight free one-on-one counseling sessions to current students per academic year. That’s quite a deal, considering that sessions at private practices cost from anywhere between $150 to $200.
Once my individual sessions expired in December, I signed up for a group – with some reluctance – at the beginning of this semester. I had learned to trust one therapist, but now I was moving on to open myself to a new one and five to eight other CSUN students.
My biggest fear was that they would judge me and tell my stories to others.
But neither of those things happened.
Each member came into the sessions with an open mind and suspended judgment because we all had identical reasons for attending group therapy: to further nourish a better understanding of ourselves and to grow as human beings. Of course there was an initial discomfort in opening up to an entire group, but as the weeks progressed, the inevitable rapport that develops when spending a lot of time with the same individuals surfaced.
The dynamic in group therapy is unique. It becomes a safe place to become vulnerable among peers who aren’t necessarily friends.
The beginning of each one and half hour session in my group consists of asking how our week has been. If we have specific issues we want to share with the group, we request for time to discuss it. Members then listen, ask questions, and share if anything said resonates with us. Not long after the group began, meeting with my group members became one of the highlights of my week.
As far as privacy goes, I have no doubt that everything I’ve shared with the group has stayed within the walls of our meeting room in Bayramian Hall. As it is with one-on-one counseling, therapists and group members are required to maintain confidentiality of all clients, except in certain cases, such as if a person is believed to be a threat to themselves or others.
The beauty of this type of therapy is that it becomes a support group where all members are generally able to provide input that is more objective and constructive than if we spoke to our friends. This is because none of us are involved in any of each other’s lives to such an extent that would bias our responses in discussions.
Some people defend not going to therapy because friends and family are there to listen. And at times, that’s really all that is needed.
However, psychologists are trained to do more than just lend an ear. They are trained to understand the roots of the discomforting symptoms people may be experiencing, as well as ways to help students get “unstuck,” according to Mark Stevens, director of UCS.
Sometimes it’s not enough to hear that friends “understand exactly” what you’re going through, and close involvement in someone’s life can result in subjective suggestions in how to handle difficult situations.
Going to a counselor for help is tough for more reasons than just the stigma. In some cultures, talking negatively about family to a stranger may result in a feeling of embarrassment or the feeling that one has dishonored their parents, Stevens said.
Others simply don’t trust the confidentiality by which licensed psychologists are bound.
However, what is important is that people are able to share how they feel while knowing that they are truly heard and listened to. In some cultures, people may find it effective to simply speak with a minister or priest, or aunt or uncle, Stevens said. For those who do this and find they need more, he suggests considering professional help.
Going to therapy may still be ridiculed, but the journey in examining old wounds and exploring feelings is enlightening and empowering. UCS offers incredible resources for students that those who have yet to use may want to consider.
Opening up and exposing uncharted emotional territory may be an uncomfortable hurdle, but doing so is a sign of strength, not weakness, and is a step toward a fulfilling state of self-awareness.
—Agnes is a graduating senior who wishes she had gone to therapy much earlier. It is for this reason she wrote this piece and hopes others consider therapy, including the services offered at UCS.