Let's imagine that one day in Phys Ed class you're playing volleyball and you twist your ankle while you dive for a save. Everything feels all right, but you wake up the next morning with a giant bruise, a swollen ankle and a lot of pain. What would you do? Most likely you'd go to the doctor's. In fact, if you didn't go, but kept limping around insisting you were all right, your friends would probably drag you there themselves.
We know when it's important to get professional help with our physical ailments. It just makes sense to us. But as a society we have problem seeking professional help with our mental health. We often label people with mental illnesses as 'crazy,' and think that if we can't take care of issues that affect our mental health (like stress, anger, or loss) then we must be weak.
The truth is though, that taking care of our mental and emotional health is just as important as our physical and spiritual health, and sometimes we need the help of an expert – and that's okay.
A professional can helps us if we suffer from the loss of a loved one, have difficulty dealing with anger, or are feeling overwhelmed by stress. They can help if we are depressed, have low self-esteem, are full of anxiety, and with many other issues.
To go more in depth into what mental health professionals do and when we might need their help, I asked some questions to Nancy O'Donnell, adjunct professor of psychology at Marist College.
How important is it for us to take care of our mental health?
The issue of caring for our mental health is certainly one of great interest, especially at a time when many acts of senseless violence seem to be the result of not attending to mental health needs. I visualize our mental health on a continuum. Each one of us finds ourselves at a certain point along this continuum, and this point can change at different moments in our lifetime. There is a point where we cross a line (difficult at times to identify) when treatment is needed. Some individuals (those we would call 'mentally ill') fall over that line and may remain there. With the help of medications and other forms of treatment, they may move closer to the middle, but they will need care for the rest of their lives. The majority of people will be able to follow happy and productive lives, with episodes of increased symptoms, provoked perhaps by stressful events, physical changes or illnesses, etc.
Not attending to symptoms of mental illness has the same consequences as not attending to symptoms of physical illness: the condition worsens, leading at times to serious disturbances that could have been avoided had treatment been given in a timely fashion. We don't have blood tests or x-rays that can help us make a clear diagnosis, but in a therapeutic relationship with a competent professional, it is possible to identify problem areas and ways to address them, including when necessary the use of medications.
What role can professionals play in this?
This brings me to the answer to this question: if you break your leg, you don't have the expectation that you can set it and cast it yourself. You know you need a professional. We need to understand that when we are 'broken' inside it is logical that we cannot heal ourselves without professional help. It may seem impossible, but I believe that we are still living in the Middle Ages when it comes to our attitudes toward mental illness.
Psychological or mental problems frighten us because they affect that part of the human person that sets us apart from other animals. So the tendency to not seek help is often rooted in a sense of shame and fear. We need to work to change mentalities in this regard.
Does seeking professional help mean that person is 'crazy' or weak because they can’t take care of this on their own?
From what I've said already, it's clear that seeking professional help in these situations is a sign of strength and courage, not of weakness. The word 'crazy' belongs to another era and I would never use it when speaking of someone who is suffering with psychological problems or mental illness. Having treated people for many years, I know the depth of pain and anguish they are in.
The competent professional is trained to, in a certain sense, go with the person to where that pain is rooted, guide them to the place of strength they have within, and journey with them to a better place, to a place of acceptance and peace. It takes knowledge and training to do this in the right way. It takes knowing when other help is needed. It takes knowing when medications might be needed. Compassion is necessary but it is not sufficient to be a good therapist.
Going to a mental health professional can be scary for us. Often the only experience we have with a therapist is what we see on TV (not necessarily accurate). Or, maybe we had a bad experience when we were forced to see somebody, or tried therapy and it didn't work. All this makes it hard for us to get the help we need.
But as actress Catherine Zeta-Jones (Chicago, Ocean's Twelve), who has bipolar disorder, recently told People magazine, 'There is no need to suffer silently, and there is no shame in seeking help.'
Let's pray to the Holy Spirit for the wisdom to know when we need professional help and the strength and courage seek it.
Nancy O'Donnell has her doctorate in clinical psychology. She worked as a clinician for many years, specialized in the treatment of psychoactive substance use disorders. She is currently working as an adjunct faculty professor of psychology at Marist College.