Although our society has made great progress in understanding that mental health is about more than simply “being in control of our emotions,” or “sucking it up” when things get tough, there is still a stigma associated with going to see a mental health professional for therapy or counseling.
Unfortunately, fear of being stigmatized often results in people who may truly need help not getting it. The consequences of not getting help vary from people not achieving the happiness and success they could with help, to the even more catastrophic act of suicide. The saddest part of any negative consequences of not seeking help is that the stigma associated with seeking help is totally unwarranted, and these consequences may be entirely avoidable.
The fact is that psychological conditions requiring treatments, such as mood disorders (depression, anxiety, bipolar, etc), personality disorders (borderline, narcissistic, etc.), psychotic disorders (schizophrenia, etc.) all have biological components. A person who suffers from chronic and deep depression, or regular and intense mood swings, is not simply “weak.” He or she is suffering from a medical, as well as emotional, condition that may be beyond his or her ability to control. Likewise for most mental conditions.
Imagine if a diabetic refused treatment because society labeled him or her as weak because they could not control their insulin levels. There is no difference with mental illness, which are all linked to structural or chemical irregularities in the brain.
While we do not yet have as much of an understanding of how the biomedical aspects of mental illness work as we do for many physical diseases, this does not mean that a person can control his or her susceptibility to mental illness any more than he can control whether or not he gets tonsillitis, or some other physical disease.
So why stigmatize? Basically, the stigma associated with mental illness is a result of our lack of understanding of how the biological, social, and psychological influences of mental illness work. But, that lack of understanding is no excuse for lack of empathy.
So when is it time to seek help?
There is no easy answer to the question of when it is time to seek help. Every person has his or her own capacity to handle mental and emotional trauma. This capacity is likely a result of the individuals predisposition (genetic or medical) to developing a mental illness, as well as the environmental (social and psychological) factors he is exposed to, particularly at an early age.
Generally speaking, if you or someone you know is having emotional or psychological problems that make it difficult or impossible to function in life, then it is time to see a therapist or doctor. Certainly, if there are thoughts of harming ones self or others, it is without question time to seek help.
However, even when things are not so extreme, seeing a therapist can often improve quality of life, and maybe prevent deeper pathology from developing. A good example is someone who has just lost a loved one, or has gone through a divorce or some other life change, that has resulted in feelings unwanted feelings of emptiness, unhappiness, anxiety, or depression. This person may not actually be “clinically depressed,” but may simply be going through an adjustment period. Seeing a therapist can often help such a person in recovery, and more importantly, help him or her shed the emotional baggage so it does not affect him in the future.
Admittedly, I am biased as I am training to be a clinical psychologist, but my personal opinion is that if there is any question in your mind about whether you should see a therapist… make the appointment. There is nothing to lose by consulting a mental health professional about your concerns. Worse case, you may get the help you need.