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The Stigma of Therapy

I don't need a psychologist; I'm not crazy.

Just when I think significant progress is being made toward increasing the acceptance and positive perception of counseling, something will occur to lead me to question that.

The latest occurrence was a recent interaction I had at a bank. Upon seeing my checks made out to Dr. Gionta, I was asked by the bank teller, "What kind of doctor are you?"

"I'm a psychologist," I said.

"A clinical psychologist?" he asked.

I answered yes. Then he said, "You must deal with a lot of crazy people."

This both amused and somewhat surprised me. I then paused and carefully thought about how I was going to answer this, without adding to his already unfortunate stereotypical view of the profession.

I said, "Well, actually, I work most often with people dealing with difficult life transitions, like divorce, health challenges, relocation, work stress, and family/parenting issues."

"So, where is your practice located?" he asked.

"Branford, CT, I said.

At this point, he appeared to lower his voice and half-whisper something to me. I believe he was trying to find out how much I charged? I couldn't make it out, and out of the corner of my eye noticed the other bank teller starting to look curiously at him and our exchange.

I found this quite amusing, like something out of a sitcom. He finally asked, as the banking transaction was nearing the end, "Do you have a business card?" I gave him my card, thanked him for his help, and walked away, wondering where and when my next encounter with the "stigma" would be.

Over the years, I've heard many creative names for therapy, quite reflective of the various stigmas. Some of my favorites are hocus pocus, mental brainwashing, and headshrinking. Now hocus pocus sounds kind of fun, perhaps because of its magical association. Unfortunately, to this day, the realm of therapy or counseling still remains quite mysterious to most people, somewhat like a magic trick. What really happens in that room? What do they do? Will I still be myself when I leave? If I go to a therapist, does that mean I'm crazy, weak or a failure? What will others think? What if I'm seen coming out of that kind of office?

Such concerns are quite natural given our socio-cultural conditioning. Unfortunately, as a result, many people decide not to pursue counseling despite experiencing significant emotional, physical or mental distress.

Let's clarify a few things. Most people who initiate counseling do not have a serious mental illness. They have serious life challenges or are going through difficult life-cycle transitions that may be taxing their current ability to cope. This, in turn, may be adversely affecting their well-being and ability to function as well as they would like.

Examples of serious life challenges can be dealing with chronic work-related stressors; career issues; financial problems; health issues or a recent health diagnosis; family or parent/child conflict; cultural assimilation; and academic issues. Examples of difficult life-cycle related transitions can be the death of a family member or friend; the ending of a romantic relationship or close friendship; family/couple changes related to the addition of a child; getting married or divorced; caregiving for loved ones due to illness or disability; and decision-making challenges related to these life choices.

These are just some of the reasons why people decide to go to counseling. So, if you are going through one or more of these challenges at the same time, you're not alone. The effects are often cumulative, which is generally referred to as a "pile-up" of stressors. Counseling during these times can be quite helpful in providing both the support and skills to better address these life challenges. Ultimately, it is an invaluable investment in your emotional, physical and mental health, an act of courage, not weakness, and a gift to those whose lives you touch.

If you'd like to learn more about what counseling options are available through your employer, contact your company's Employee Assistance Program (EAP) or Human Resources Department. You can also use the Psychology Today therapist finder to locate a psychologist near you.

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