Why People Avoid Therapy

First let’s talk about the elephant in the room for many. For some of you reading this, you may have felt uncomfortable even clicking on the link because it’s about the off-limits subject, in your mind, of mental health. It does seem that people fall somewhere on a continuum with two polarizing ends when it comes to the idea of therapy- those who are overall comfortable with the idea of going to therapy and those who are terrified of it (more on that later). I’ve seen many people in my years as a therapist who benefit greatly from therapy regardless of where they fall on this continuum. 

To give the latter end of the spectrum some credit, mental health stigma has been around for a long time and has some deep cultural roots. This stigma is real and I, in no way, wish to shame people for their fear of reaching out for help and the inherent feelings of vulnerability the topic of mental health entails. Fears like this, based in cultural lies we’ve been told, are certainly tough to push through. For those who have made the brave step to call or schedule their first counseling appointment in spite of these fears often do so because the discomfort they’re experiencing outweighs the discomfort of facing these fears. 

First, I want to make evident that the stigma that surrounds mental health is certainly on the decline thanks to many different factors including the outspokenness of celebrities like Kristen Bell (you can read her excellent article here) (Bell, 2016) and Bradley Cooper, as well as organizations like the Heads Together campaign, This Is My Brave Foundation, among many others making it their mission to help create a dialogue to counteract the lingering stigma in our cultures. Consider that even back over a decade ago surveys showed that “48 percent of those polled reported a visit to a mental health professional by someone in their household this year, and more than nine out of 10 -91 percent- said they would likely consult or recommend a mental health professional if they or a family member were experiencing a problem.” (Chamberlin, 2004). Since 2004 when this survey was conducted the prevalence of individuals, couples, and families seeking out mental health treatment, as most of us can attest to, has risen significantly. 

This is reflected in the number of people who know someone personally who has sought out a counselor as well as the rise in themes in the entertainment industry centering around therapy and the commonality of emotional struggles. We’re in an age of transparency like we’ve never been before. It only takes a few minutes watching the news or scrolling your social media to see that in some ways this transparency can be to our detriment, but this cultural shift has also done amazing things to help normalize our need for outside help when we’re struggling. You don’t have to look far in the realm of movies and TV these days to find references to emotional and mental health struggles and the encouragement to seek help. As a therapist, I’m personally excited to see where the benefit of this cultural shift takes us in the future and what impact it will have on the misguided stigma surrounding seeking out professional help. 

Now onto my second main point regarding people’s fear of counseling and reaching out: vulnerability. Vulnerability is defined as “capable of or susceptible to being wounded or hurt” (dictonary.com). From this perspective, it makes sense that vulnerability is a scary thing for people and thus, for some, something to be avoided. But there’s another side to the story. Regarding any aspect of shame and vulnerability, I recommend turning to the amazing work of Dr. Brene Brown. Dr. Brown has this to say about vulnerability:

Vulnerability is not weakness, and the uncertainty, risk, and emotional exposure we face every day are not optional. Our only choice is a question of engagement. Our willingness to own and engage with our vulnerability determines the depth of our courage and the clarity of our purpose; the level to which we protect ourselves from being vulnerable is a measure of our fear and disconnection.
— Brené Brown

You might want to read that one a few times. Better yet, go buy the whole book. Vulnerability is a double-edged sword in our minds. But generally I think it’s safe to say that often we’re blessed by our capacity to be vulnerable. This is true in our everyday lives and this is also true when it comes to the decision to seek out counseling. We can all easily bring up in our memory times where vulnerability has created wounds that we feel for a long time afterward. I’m also certain, though, that every one of us can bring up an ever-growing list of instances in which vulnerability has been a powerful and beautiful force to be reckoned with. Good relationships and good therapy share this quality. 

For what it’s worth though, I am aware of my bias regarding therapy and vulnerability. If you ask me, well, therapy is wonderful. This has proven true for me as I’ve journeyed along the road of counseling with clients as their therapist and as I’ve experienced my own healing in therapy. People make comments to me all the time about how it is that I’m able to do the work that I do with people and the answer is that therapy isn’t just about the hurt, it’s about the healing. I get to watch people improve and heal and that’s simply a beautiful thing to witness and to be a part of. So perhaps consider that the stigma against therapy doesn’t have much of a leg to stand on after all and should finally be laid to rest. 

Bell, Kristen (2016). Kristen Bell Shares Struggles With Depression and Anxiety - Motto. (2016, May 31). Retrieved April 11, 2017, from http://motto.time.com/4352130/kristen-bell-frozen-depression-anxiety/
Brown, B. (2015). Daring greatly: how the courage to be vulnerable transforms the way we live, love, parent, and lead. London: Penguin Life.
Chamberlin, J. (2005, July). Survey says: More Americans are seeking mental health treatment. Retrieved April 10, 2017, from http://www.apa.org/monitor/julaug04/survey.aspx
vulnerability. (n.d.). Dictionary.com Unabridged. Retrieved April 13, 2017 from Dictionary.com website http://www.dictionary.com/browse/vulnerability