About 30 years ago, I used to tell a joke that went: “My mother is a therapist, my sister is going to be a therapist and I’m in therapy.” It may or may not have been funny, depending on your appreciation of mental health humor, but I wasn’t kidding.
My mom was a social worker, my twin sister had been accepted into the Master of Social Work program at the University of Pennsylvania, and I was in therapy for the first time, beginning a relationship with counseling that, I believe, has saved my life.
I don’t like the word “normal,” because the concept doesn’t exist. But during April’s Counseling Awareness Month, I want to do my part to normalize therapy, something that’s been invaluable to me in both devastatingly traumatic moments, such as the death of my husband, and in quieter situations where I was just trying to figure out what was going on with me. Talking to someone can help. I learned that I was not alone in my grief, or uncertainty, or my parenting, and I want to keep that conversation going.
“Someone said to me once, ‘If people paid attention to their mental health as much as they do their cars, we would be in a better place,” said Sara Pula, a national certified counselor, Ph.D, the owner of Pula Counseling and Consulting in Annapolis and the former president of the Maryland Counseling Association. “We used to take our cars in every 5,000 miles for an oil change. Now it’s 3,000. But the point is that we checked in. There doesn’t need to be a traumatic situation to do it.”
More of us are checking in more than ever. Forbes reported that according to a SWNS survey, one in six American adults started therapy for the first time and 31% of people either continued or returned to treatment in 2020. That was, you may remember, a universally sucky year. But there are still people who could use help who won’t or can’t explore it, for myriad reasons such as cost, not wanting to talk to a stranger or fear of judgment, according to Psychology Today.
“In my experience, when people tell me that they have concerns or are reluctant to start therapy, I hear ‘My family would frown upon this, for me to put all our business out there, and it feels like a betrayal,” said Halcyon Francis, a licensed clinical social worker with a doctorate in social work in Baltimore.
“Sometimes it’s the church. ‘The pastor says ‘Why would you need to go outside of the church to get help; what if that counselor isn’t led spiritually?’ And there’s a stigma attached to treating mental health, like ‘You must have problems.’ You don’t have to have any more problems than anyone else to want help,” she said.
Even though counseling was part of my family culture, it’s traditionally been less so in the greater African American community, where only a reported 25% of us explore the services of a mental health professional versus 40% of white people. The reasons vary — we assume the therapist won’t understand our problems, or expect racism. Sometimes we just can’t afford it, which is tragic. I personally think care for mental health, as with physical health, should be a constitutional right.
Pula says that cultural competency is now understood to be very important in counseling, and that in her classes at the online Capella University, her students focus on their own culture and biases to learn how to best address potential clients who may come from different circumstances. There are also more and more therapists of varying backgrounds, though it’s sometimes hard to find them.
Francis said about half of her clients are Black women, like her, who “have specifically sought me out. There are ways in that we communicate with each other, things that we talk about within the community, that you might be more comfortable talking about with someone like you. Sometimes we’re talking about colorism, and how it impacts your work or dating life. And I can say ‘Yeah, I get it.’”
I wrote recently about how hard it is to allow yourself space for self-care, and I think that therapy is just one part of that practice. “It’s just a space for you to focus solely on yourself,” Francis said. “Your therapist isn’t implementing their own advice. You can be yourself, share those deep, dark secrets you think no one knows about, and feel free to say them in therapy.”
But still, the concept can be scary. Jocelyn Hassanzadeh, a Baltimore native who now lives in Northern California, admitted that she only made an appointment with a mental health counselor the first time “because she was also billed as a career counselor, which is the step I needed to be in a room with her.”
The counselor gave Hassenzadeh an assignment “to go to the grocery store and buy whatever I want. I was like ‘What are you talking about?’ I look up the price of onions at eight different stores. I came from extreme poverty. I didn’t have three meals a day. It was a red flag that I had a problem with money, a lot of fear. [Therapy] is the best money I ever spent. It really demystified problems I didn’t know how to solve, that I didn’t realize I had. I went for the career counseling, and stayed for the addressing of horrific years of trauma.”
So where do you start? Francis and Pula both said that fit is important. “I always tell people to make sure you shop around for a therapist,” Francis said. “You have to ask questions.”
Pula said she doesn’t go deep into problems during a client’s first session, but rather asks, “‘Why do you think you need counseling?’ It’s always based on the client, and what they are ready for. We take a gentle approach. It’s person-centered. You are the person in control of where you want to go.”
Three decades after I first made that counseling quip, my mother has become a psych nurse and educator, my sister used the empathy that first made her consider social work to instead become a creator of theater for young people. And I am still in therapy, still not ashamed and still privileged to be able to check in, to talk, to keep up.
And that’s no joke.