I’m ashamed to say that I don’t go to therapy.
It’s not that I don’t need it. I have a history of obsessive compulsive disorder, anxiety and depression. I know this because I went to a therapist who diagnosed me six years ago in college after I came back from my study abroad. I returned home with a depression so deep I couldn’t get out of bed. But after getting my eight free sessions ― and an antidepressant prescription that I would wean off of one year later ― I never set foot in a therapist’s office again.
The thing is, I loved therapy. It worked wonders for me in that short amount of time. I bawled my eyes out in the first session. I learned my full diagnosis by the fourth meeting and was prescribed drugs by the last, which immediately made me feel better.
Ever since, I’ve been touting the benefits to everyone I know. I talk openly about my mental health issues. Several friends have even asked me for therapist recommendations.
And when my best friend was having a rough time ― and proceeded to go to a few sessions, only to quit the moment she felt better ― I pushed hard for her to stick with it.
“Therapy is not just for when you’re low,” I told her. “It works best over time.”
But I don’t even take my own advice.
Two years after my first experience with depression, I fell back into a deep one while working abroad after graduation. I was sobbing on my bed daily, telling my dad over the phone how I didn’t know why I was crying. But against my own instincts, and previous positive experience with therapy, I decided I could get out of this one on my own.
I started meditating, journaling and running every day. Research shows that lifestyle changes, such as mindfulness and exercise, can help people cope with depression. And while those activities did make a difference, the only thing that ultimately helped was simply buying a ticket home. I kicked the problem down the road in the hopes that it wouldn’t come rearing back one day to haunt me.
I still haven’t gone to a therapist since that first episode in college. While I’ve been fairly stable, not returning to the deepest bouts of depression I experienced years ago, my mental health is far from great.
I still feel pangs of anxiety every day ― a phantom clutch in my stomach and vice-grip on my chest. My OCD rears its ugly head in the most bizarre ways ― not letting me leave my room without making the bed in the morning, or not letting me finish a paragraph without it aligning with the line above it (even as I type this, I’m adding words to make it line up.) I’m afraid of getting pregnant, because I think that if anyone’s going to get postpartum, it’s me.
If I know therapy works and I praise it to everyone. So what’s stopping me?
Shame. The stigma around therapy and mental illness is so real and I’ve internalized it so deeply. Even though I know it’s great, and tell everyone else, I can’t bring myself to go.
I’ve come up with a list of excuses: One day, it’s “I can’t afford it.” The next it’s “I’m not even depressed anymore.” But really it’s just shame ― at needing help, at not being perfect.
I’m not alone: Nearly one in five Americans experience a mental health issue in a given year. Only 25 percent of people with these conditions believe others are caring and sympathetic to those with mental illness, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
As a result of this stigma, many people don’t seek out treatment, whether it be therapy, medication or both. For example, more than 300 million people worldwide have depression but almost half of them don’t get medical support, according to the World Health Organization.
It’s important to note that I’m privileged when it comes to mental health and therapy. I am a white woman living in a progressive community who can likely afford it. I don’t face the same stigmas and barriers to treatment as many people do in communities of color.
Even though I’ve known all of this information about mental health ― from the statistics to my own experience ― it was only yesterday that I hit my last straw.
I was listening to the podcast With Friends Like These, where host Ana Marie Cox discussed her alcoholism and bipolar diagnoses in a recent episode. I heard her say something about her mental health and her parents that shook me.
“On the inside, I was never successful enough ― never, never, never enough,” Cox said. “Trying to fill the hole with accomplishments and achievements ― and also, ‘You don’t have to worry about me, I’m good, I’m good, I’m not a burden to you.’”
I burst into tears on the subway. I had said almost those exact same words to my college therapist six years ago: “I’m the good child, I’m the one they don’t have to worry about.”
Clearly I still have work to do. Despite my meditation sessions, despite my high-functioning work life, despite my genuine happiness in my everyday, I need therapy ― and that’s okay.
So in the spirit of Mental Health Awareness Month, this is my public commitment to start going to therapy. It’s also a call to anyone who is hesitating, who thinks they’re doing just fine or that they’re just not that type of person. Take my word for it: Therapy is not just for when you’re low. And you deserve this.
As part of May’s Mental Health Awareness Month, we’re focusing on treatment and the stigma around getting help. Check out our coverage here and share your story at firstname.lastname@example.org.