Hi. I’m proud of you for clicking on this. You might feel like you need help, and that’s okay.
You probably don’t know me, but before you get any further reading this, I need to say that I’m NOT a doctor or a licensed social worker or anything like that, I’m just a person who is battling mental illness and has been in and out of therapy my entire life. I’m writing only from my own experience. If you can, you should talk about your mental health with your primary care doctor.
First things first: are you thinking about hurting yourself or someone else? Not just a passing thought. No, like, are you thinking about it obsessively? All the time? Do you find yourself planning a way to try not to feel so fucking horrible anymore that involves a lot of medication, jumping off a high building, or injuring yourself?
If you feel like you cannot control these thoughts and they won’t stop, if you are in crisis, or need immediate support or intervention, get yourself to an emergency room or call 911 and tell the dispatcher how you feel. They will get you help immediately. You can also call 1-800-273-8255 talk to a crisis counselor 24/7, or go the website of the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline. Again, if you feel like you are a danger to yourself or your thoughts are potentially life-threatening, call 911 or go to a hospital emergency room.
If you’re not feeling suicidal, you may still need help. Take this mental health assessment.
Mental illness is different for everyone. Some people experience mental illness like a cold: an acute illness that is managed with shorter treatment; by some mental illness deeply affects a person’s life and can be disabling.
Many mental illnesses are treatable, and with proper treatment and management of the illness, people with these disorders can experience recovery.
According to the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH), serious mental illness is relatively rare, affecting only 5% of the population over 18. Serious mental illness includes schizophrenia; the subset of major depression called “severe, major depression”; the subset of bipolar disorder classified as “severe” and a few other disorders. At this level of mental illness, it causes significant functional impairment and substantially limits life activities. Some people need 24/7 care and treatment.
How do you know if you need to “get help” for mental health?
I know this is a hard question. If you’re thinking about it, you’ve already made the first step in seeing signs of mental health. Sometimes the symptoms creep upon you that you don’t even notice.
Recognizing signs of mental health disorders is not easy.
One day, at the local Target (my fave store), I couldn’t find the toilet paper aisle. They had reorganized the store, which seems minimal and a non-issue, but to my already overwhelmed and anxious brain, it caused dizziness, heart palpitations, sweating, shaking, pain in my chest, I couldn’t breathe, and I had an intense feeling of “I need to get the fuck out of here ASAP because I think I am dying”. I was having a panic attack in Aisle G4.
The next time I needed to go, I couldn’t even get myself into my car to drive there… the thought of those bright white aisles and red shelves made me feel an intense fear that I’ve never experienced before. My doctor later told me that this was a classic symptom of panic disorder: fear and avoidance of places where panic attacks have occurred in the past.
I’m privileged in that I have 1. a long history of mental illness (lol) and 2. I took a psychology class in college and know a lot of the basic signs and symptoms of mental illness. But if you’re new to mental health, I don’t really even know what to tell you here. It’s really overwhelming.
One of the DSM criteria for mental illness is that the duration is for two weeks or more, but many people wait to get help only after their symptoms go on for months.
Try to identify what symptoms you’re experiencing. Scan your mind and body. Are your thoughts racing from thought to thought in an uncontrollable way? Do you feel unbearable sadness, hopelessness, or emptiness? Do you have a constant feeling like something horrible is going to happen?
You might want to start with calling your primary care doctor. If you have the kind of insurance that lets you see a mental health professional without a referral, I would use psychologytoday to find one.
After I admitted that I was dealing with something well beyond my control, I called my health care provider.
Because I live in the US, my experience with “getting help” was complicated. I have a PPO through private insurance that I pay for myself. It’s annoying, but whatever, #selfemployed.
First, I called the “24-hour nurse hotline”. I said I needed help because I was depressed and having panic attacks. They asked me a bunch of questions, kind of like the above questionnaire, which stressed me out and made me cry. Then she asked if I was suicidal, and I said no. Based on that, and apparently my lack of urgency, it took me a little while (like a few weeks) to get an appointment with a primary care doctor, who needed to write a referral for me to get into the behavioral health department.
There are also national agencies and advocacy organizations that have information on finding a mental health professional:
What happens after you “get help”?
After an evaluation by a doctor, you may receive a diagnosis or a treatment plan. Exercise, talk therapy and medication are often used as the first line of treatment for mental illness. Some people may use talk therapy for a short time and then find they don’t need it anymore. Some people need talk therapy for a long term or forever. Just the same, some people use medications (like antidepressants), for a short time, while others use them long term.
Your mental health should be treated just like your physical health. Except instead of your body, it’s your brain. You need to do things to exercise and relax your brain.
Anyone and everyone could benefit from seeing a therapist at some point in their life.
How to find a therapist
I used psychologytoday.com. You can search by therapist, treatment center, psychiatrists, or support grounds. You can also search by insurance, type of therapy, specialty, location and more.
But there so many different types of therapists? What kind should you see?
I know this is super confusing. What do all of those letters mean?!? Why is this so hard? I just need a “therapist”! Those letters after the therapists name are their credentials and designations.
Psychologist—does psychotherapy and has a doctorate degree (PhD). I see a psychologist.
Psychiatrist—psychiatrist is a medical doctor (MD) and the only professional that specializes in mental health care and can prescribe medicine for the brain. They use their medical training to treat mental health using biology and medicine! For example, if you are battling Depression, they might prescribe an antidepressant to make more serotonin (the happy neurotransmitter!) available.
LCSW—licensed clinical social worker has a Master’s degree in social work (M.S.W.) and carries the LCSW designation if they are doing psychotherapy. They specialize in various kinds of talk therapy.
LMFT—licensed marriage and family therapist.
What kind of therapy is best for you?
Psychotherapy, talk therapy, therapy, or just counseling, is focused on helping you heal and learn better ways to deal with the problems or issues in your life. It can also help you when you going through a difficult period or under increased stress. Most psychotherapy is goal-oriented, and focuses on teaching you new ways to think (doesn’t that sound awesome!) and problem solving.
The most popular kinds of therapy: psychodynamic therapy, cognitive behavioral therapy, dialectic behavioral therapy, accelerated dynamic experiential therapy, support groups, and family therapy.
The most important thing about seeking talk therapy: the relationship you have with your therapist.
Your first session may be awkward. You should try to find someone you feel comfortable with and someone that works with you to establish your trust.
It took me 7 different appointments with 5 different people until I found a mental health specialist that I felt comfortable with.
But you will find someone. There is someone who can help you. It might be a team.
You’re going to be fine.
Does seeing a mental health specialist/professional or therapist mean you’re crazy?
No. ABSOLUTELY NOT.
Let’s just eliminate the word crazy from our vocabulary.
Therapy can benefit everyone, mental illness or not. You can learn tools for managing stress in healthy ways and how to think of situations differently so they become less stressful. A mental health professional is an unbiased ear that you can talk to without judgement and it’s really, really helpful. With the help of a professional, you can learn healthy cognitive, emotional, and behavioral patterns. Therapy can help you with personal and professional relationships, and most importantly, the relationship with yourself.