Your brain is just another organ that can use regular check ups.
“Of course it is happening inside your head… but why on earth should that mean that it is not real?” This Harry Potter quote captures the sometimes confusing nature of mental health. Why is it that treatment for mental illness so often taken for granted? Because many people and communities still don’t see mental illness as a “real” disease or affliction.
The History of Mental Illness Stigma
Throughout history, society has built stigmas surrounding mental health, writing off episodes as hysteria, satanic possession, personality quirks—or using it within a range of shaming structures, from crude joke punchlines to justifications for committing a crime. Patients don’t want to admit to any sort of mental or emotional distress to be lumped into a certain category, and effective treatments haven’t always been available.
Thankfully, mental health advocacy has taken center stage in societal discourse. That’s partly due to the internet, celebrity outreach, social media platforms, and more nuanced portrayals in the media. This can help people be more willing to share their own stories and struggles with friends and family. When this happens, many find that a lot more people are seeking mental health treatment than expected.
The Importance of Early Treatment
Why wait? Here are some common excuses used to avoid a mental health check—and major reasons you should check them at the door.
1. You feel too shy or embarrassed to open up
Therapists have heard it all, so there’s no need to be ashamed of your concerns, thoughts, or problems. Your confidentiality and safety take top priority. As you and your therapist build a relationship, it will get easier to open up.
2. You feel discouraged by the stigma surrounding mental illness
This is a vicious cycle: Society develops rules and codes to live by, and when you are an outlier, you feel alone in your struggle. This may then lead to shame. Shame may prevent you from opening up to family, friends, and professionals, which confirms your belief that you are alone. You may be surprised by how many people share your struggle when you start opening up.
3. You’re worried that it’s too expensive
Yes—therapy, testing, and medication can become costly for some people, depending on:
- Where you live;
- Your employment status;
- Health insurance coverage;
- Income; and
- If you need to travel far to see the nearest therapist
That said, some cost-effective options are becoming available thanks to advancements in technology. For example, phone apps like Talkspace and Better Help allow you to virtually connect with counselors at a fraction of the cost. Services like Capsule and GoodRx can also help bring down the costs of prescriptions. Some states are offering free services in the COVID-19 era as well.
4. You think only those with severe symptoms need treatment
Anyone can see a therapist—at any time. It’s good practice to have a regular “check-up from the neck up," just like your annual physical isn’t prompted by any sort of physical illness or injury. Your brain is a muscle that needs attention, exercise, care, and rest. Learn more reasons why you don’t need a mental illness to see a therapist.
Plus, it can be proactive to learn good coping and stress-relieving strategies in the event you are confronted with any sort of emotionally or mentally traumatic event at a later date. If you can understand what triggers might lead to a crisis, you can proactively prevent them.
5. It’s “weak” to ask for help
Some people grow up in communities or family dynamics that encourage people to “act tough.” Worse, some people have to put so much energy into getting their basic needs met (like food, shelter, and physical safety) that they don’t have the time or energy to focus on their mental health.
However, opening up about your struggle, reaching out for a helping hand, and admitting you need support could be the bravest thing you do. Even better, it may inspire others to get the help they need, too.
The Dangers of Not Treating Mental Illness
It’s risky to wait too long to seek treatment for a mental health issue. Any condition can worsen as time ticks on, and negative thought and behavior patterns become more solidified in your brain. As a result, these strong habits may become harder and harder to break. When left untreated, some mental illnesses may increase your risk for substance misuse, self-harm, and suicidal ideation.
If you are starting to have symptoms that are getting in the way of your social life, work life, family life, or goals, it may be a good time to see a therapist. Therapy can help you better understand yourself, what leads to certain problems, and how to cope better. Find out what to expect at your first therapy session here.
If you or someone you know is thinking about suicide, you can call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK for free and confidential help 24 hours a day.
Marc Lener, MD, is a psychiatrist and founder of the Singula Institute in New York City