I finished a series of counselling sessions recently which I found very helpful. I’ve had good counselling experiences before that, too, but I’ve also bad ones. Because of this, and because getting help can be a daunting experience, I wanted to impart some advice. So, here’s some things that I feel should be common knowledge but aren’t, necessarily:
1. There are different types of counselling
There can be no ‘one size fits all’ approach to mental health because we’re individuals and all of our issues are entirely unique. When most people think about counselling, they imagine sitting talking through their issues, either one by one as they occur to them, or as a kind of word vomit that they’ll then sift through (hey, no one said it would be pretty). This is ‘talk therapy’ and it’s what I personally prefer, but there are a million other ways of doing things. Some will suit you, some won’t. Some are best suited to dealing with different kinds of things, it depends what you want out of therapy. If you want to change or stop a destructive habit, for example, Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) might be for you.
2. Not every counsellor will approach things in the same way
As well as talk therapy, I’ve personally experienced CBT a couple of times. With one of my counsellors, it was kind of like being hypnotized without the cheesy gimmicks. The guy would count back from ten, I would close my eyes, and then he’d try and get me to think back to childhood and “rewatch” old memories of myself.
With another counsellor, it was more like the talk therapy but instead of the ‘word vomit’ part, she asked me specific questions that got to the root of the issue and we discussed practical solutions together. She sent me home with worksheets to fill out and was surprised to hear that no one else had ever done that with me before. She couldn’t imagine the process without it.
For me, the homework actually really helped but for a lot of others it would be off-putting. The key is, you’ve got to find what works for you and go with it. You get back what you put in.
3. It’s okay to say if something isn’t working for you
If you know you need help, you may feel like you have no option but to accept that help in whatever form it has been offered to you, but a lot of counsellors are trained in more than one type of therapy and if you tell them the current method isn’t working, they can either switch things up within their own practice or try you out with one of their colleagues who will have different training and/or a different approach.
4. It’s okay to complain
It can happen that you tell a counsellor that something isn’t working for you and they, essentially, ignore you. It’s ironic in the extreme but some counsellors just don’t listen. In those cases, it’s perfectly acceptable to complain about them and ask for someone else over their head. Don’t worry about getting the counsellor into trouble or having them be mad at you or whatever. What matters here is that you are getting what you need. I honestly think some therapists get into the job on an ego trip, thinking they can satisfy their saviour complex that way.
Don’t waste your time and/or money on these people. You deserve better and there is better out there, if you keep trying.
5. There is help out there while you’re waiting
Unfortunately, waiting lists are a thing that most of us have to deal with in the modern world. But what happens if it takes six months to see a counsellor and you need help now? Don’t do what I did and assume that means you’re expected to spend that time sitting on your issues, watching them get bigger until your time is up and you’ve reached the top of the list. If you’re feeling yourself drowning and can’t wait for a lifeboat, reach for any available bit of driftwood that passes by in the meantime. By which I mean, there are emergency helplines in most countries of the world. Use them. You’re not being a nuisance and you do deserve their time.
If I was to summarize all of this, I would say: do what you gotta do to keep your head above water. If what you’re currently doing doesn’t work, try something else. There’s no shame in trying out all of your options until you find something that does actually help you. What has worked for you in the past may not work for you now and what works for your friends may be extremely unhelpful in your case. Do not despair. There are probably more options out there than you’ll initially be told about – do some research. Ask questions. You are the important thing in all of this and you deserve to get the best treatment you can. If your experience with counsellors has been a disaster, do not give up. The very best ones are worth their weight in platinum.