The Fear of Counseling – Why are we afraid to seek help?

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Imagine this scenario – you have a cold. Your nose is running, you have a bad headache, and your throat hurts. You have a lot of work, and start to think of how you will handle it. You could push through the weakness to continue, but you can also take a break for the day and recover. You also start to consider treatment - you are familiar with several options that are easily available, it is only a matter of choice; you can either take over-the-counter pills or home remedies such as a warm cup of milk with turmeric (haldi) or hot ginger tea.  If the conditions don’t improve, you start to reach out to those around you for help. You may share this discomfort with friends or family, or even decide that it is time to see a physician.

Compared to our physical ailments, the scenario would not be the same for emotional distress. Symptoms of mental health such as a constant ‘flat’ feeling or a panic attacks are prevalent across the world, but are experienced in silence. While ‘mental well-being’ is increasingly being publicly acknowledged and discussed, the notion that our minds and emotions need care is still new. However, the need for mental health services in India is becoming increasingly apparent.

Research has shown that there are a large number of people suffering from poor mental health in India, which is increasing every day. Are there enough resources available to meet this growing demand for help? Even if there are, have we become comfortable enough to admit that we need help?

One of the primary barriers to improving access to mental health care in India seems to be the stigma attached to accessing professional help, such as going to a therapist or psychiatrist. We seem to be afraid to accept and seek help when we are unable to handle our distress. Why is that so?

Here are possible reasons for our reluctance to seek help:

Am I crazy?

The main stigma attached to seek therapy is the fear that if we do, we must be crazy. Psychological services are still associated with the image of going to a mental asylum. This notion is rooted in the fear of being associated with madness, which is then considered untreatable. It prevents us from admitting to our own feelings of suffering, leading us to ignore it instead. Imagine if the same stigma existed for hypertension?

Under the carpet

The responsibility of seeking help cannot be placed only on the individual. The society we live in also contributes to the issues around mental health, but also holds the solution. Experiences of emotional distress are not discussed openly in our social circles. From the individual to the family to the media, there is a tendency to avoid talking about them. The silence makes it difficult for those in need to reach out or seek appropriate treatment, which leads to confusion about the different practitioners and services available in the field.

Fear of expression

Oftentimes it can be difficult to express ourselves during mental distress, since it involves talking about one’s feelings. Communicating about one’s own feelings involves identifying them as well as using language to express them. However, talking about feelings are avoided as the individuals are then labeled to be ‘emotional’. Therefore, any signs of distress are buried as deeply as possible, which adds to the silence around it.

Who can help?

Through sheer perseverance and courage, even if you do admit to needing help, who do you seek that help from? Moreover, even if you find someone, how do you judge their competence? The closed-door approach to mental health can make it difficult to access resources that are reliable. There have been efforts to maintain collated information on available professionals, but the ability to gauge the quality of the service remains nebulous. 

‘It’s all in the mind’ – Another common belief that hinders us from seeking help for our mental health is the idea that once you put your mind to it, the feelings will dissipate. For example, a common advice for those suffering from depression is to ‘think about happy things’ which can do more harm than good.  The idea that the onus for recovery solely remains with the individual’s intention dismisses the suffering and deep-rooted impact of mental distress. Although physical ailments are not the same as mental distress, it is important to keep in mind that they work together. One’s functioning can influence each other greatly. Just as one needs to make a conscious choice to improve physical health, improving our mental health requires time, effort and attention. Building awareness around the issue as a whole is the first step in working towards an emotionally healthy society.