My experience seeking and receiving psychological treatment has not been easy, so I thought I would write about them to shine a light on the challenges that myself and many others face. Psychotherapy, counseling and other forms of non-medicated treatment are often prescribed to people with a mental illness. The results can be life-changing, but it’s a tricky field to navigate.

In the past five years, I have seen a grand total of ten (I think) mental health professionals outside of my family doctor’s office. Why so many? Not each person provided the same kind of services, and it took me a while to figure out what was most helpful for me. I also had to go through a lot of people to find someone with whom I felt truly comfortable, and who consistently provided the support I needed. Most of these visits were free, because I was either in school or covered by insurance, but some of them were very, very expensive. From my understanding, if you’re referred to a mental health professional through your school or a hospital, the service is covered by provincial health insurance. Many employers also offer an Employee Assistance Program (EAP) that covers mental health services, though usually just on a short term basis. If you don’t have a referral or an EAP and you want to see a private psychologist, each one-hour visit costs close to $200 CDN. It’s not cheap.

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There are several different types of mental health professionals, and they can be easily mixed up because their roles may seem similar. One of the most well-known mental health professionals is a psychologist. Psychologists study how we think, feel and behave from a scientific perspective. They work in research, in a clinical setting, or in both. In the context of treatment, psychologists help people approach and change their behaviours or thought patterns in order to manage a mental illness. Psychiatrists, on the other hand, are medical doctors who specialize in mental illnesses. One of the most notable differences between a psychologist and a psychiatrist is that a psychiatrist can prescribe medication, and they often focus more on medication rather than psychotherapy. Clinical counselors and social workers provide yet another aspect of treatment. Their patients do not necessarily have a mental illness, but could be going through a particular challenge or major transition in their life. Counselors and social workers provide guidance and teach coping skills that will help people improve their mental health.

Now, assuming that you have (a) committed to seeking help from a mental health professional (this is already a huge step in itself), (b) figured out the difference between the kinds of services available, and (c) acquired the means to pay for these services or a suitable insurance plan – the struggle isn’t over. Each time I was referred to a psychologist or a psychiatrist through my university, I was told the wait time would be approximately six months. This is a very long time to wait, especially given that many people seek out help during a crisis. Not knowing when you’re going to get the treatment you need is incredibly nerve-wracking and discouraging. Imagine if a suicidal patient is told they have to wait weeks or months or even a year before they can see someone. Too much could happen in that time span.

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Now imagine that the wait is finally over and you can talk to someone. Often, the first couple of visits are just for you to talk about your background, and for the professional to make a diagnosis if necessary. I tried to give each person at least three visits to decide if I was going to stay with them, but sometimes it was tough to even get to the third visit. One appointment ended with me in tears because the counselor bluntly suggested that I was causing my own problems and that I should get over myself. Another appointment led to an anxiety attack because the counselor’s behaviour was making me acutely uncomfortable. In yet another appointment, my psychologist told me “you don’t seem depressed” and stared at me as if I should be thanking him and dancing out the door, instead of wondering desperately what I was going to do with my symptoms if they couldn’t be explained. It was so hard to go back again and again, to ask for someone new, to wait for weeks or months, to get through the hurdle of explaining my problems and then sometimes hearing the most unprofessional, unhelpful “advice” I could imagine.

On the bright side

Luckily, I had enough good experiences, support from others and determination to keep trying. In between all the waiting, the people who dismissed my problems and the stress of setting up or paying for another appointment, I met some very helpful people who listened carefully to me, genuinely cared about my progress, and tried their best to guide me in the right direction. Much like medication, it took a lot of trial and error but I’m glad that I worked through the challenges over the years. I tried to think of each new referral not as a reminder of failed past attempts, but as an opportunity for hope and growth.

Of all the psychologists, psychiatrists, counselors and social workers that I’ve seen, whether good or bad experiences, they have each made a different impact on my life and how I treat my mental illness. Psychotherapy and counseling has helped me grow and learn more about myself. I have a better understanding of how my mind works, what motivates me, and what I need to do when I feel myself slipping. Mental health care professionals are here for a reason, and though they aren’t all perfect (just like us), the right fit can make a great difference in your recovery. This post was certainly not meant to discourage anyone from seeking professional help for a mental health problem, but to illustrate the challenges that come with it, and to ask for empathy and understanding from others. There is still a lot of stigma around seeing a mental health professional, which makes many people embarrassed to talk about it. I hope this changes soon. Asking for help is a huge step forward, and a brave one at that.

If you’re feeling overwhelmed and you’re not sure where to start, this site provides a great checklist for getting help from a mental health professional. The path to finding what works best for you may be rough, but it’s part of the journey of managing your illness or even just everyday stress. We all deserve happiness and peace, so don’t be afraid to take care of yourself by asking for help.

Photo credits: “No need to wait” by twinkabauter on Flickr; “Waiting at the Station London Town (Explored)” by Geraint Rowland on Flickr.

About Jasmin Yee

Jasmin Yee is an Ottawa-based young professional who has dealt with mental illness since the end of high school. Now 24, she has a passion for mental health advocacy and breaking down the barriers that make it so hard to talk publicly about mental illness. She writes about her experiences with depression and anxiety on her blog, as well as her thoughts on how to reduce stigma. Jasmin aims to develop a career in health promotion so that she can connect with at-risk communities and enable them to take care of their mental health.

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