Seeking mental health therapy is a strength, not a weakness

For most of us, going to the doctor is a regular part of life. We do annual checkups and do our best to follow the doctor’s recommendations. If a problem is found, we go to a specialist: For palpitations, you go to a cardiologist. For skin problems, go to a dermatologist.

But there is one area of ​​health care that many people still feel uneasy about – mental health. Why?

The brain is our most vital and complex organ, crucial to our experience as human beings. From a medical point of view, the electrochemical processes in the tissue enveloped by the skull are no less important or more intentional than the electrochemical processes protected by our ribcage.

So why do we stigmatize caring for one but not the other?

Mental health, or brain health as I prefer to call it, should be treated as a medical issue as we would treat any other part of the body. And as we proactively monitor and protect our heart or kidneys, we must also protect our brain.

The brain is much more complex than other organs, which means it requires its own set of exercises. It’s not enough to watch your diet, sleep, or run on a treadmill—although these activities certainly help. Instead, brain care requires unique exercises that can strengthen neural pathways in a healthy way. One such tool to achieve this goal is therapy.

Most people have the wrong idea about therapy. Seeing a therapist shouldn’t just happen when you have a problem. It also doesn’t necessarily mean you have a brain disease. Rather, therapy can and perhaps should begin at an early age as a consistent way to gain self-esteem, practice therapeutic tools, and identify barriers to brain health before problems arise.

Preventative brain care allows you to cope more successfully with life’s challenges. It can also help mitigate potential illnesses, especially for people predisposed to brain diseases through genetic or environmental factors—as is true for anyone predisposed to other health problems.

Another misconception people often have about therapy is that the therapist’s job is to fix them. This couldn’t be further from the truth. Like most things in life, you get out of therapy what you put in. Just like signing up for a gym membership isn’t going to get you ripped abs, sitting on the therapist’s couch isn’t going to strengthen your brain—in fact, you have to put in the effort. In the case of therapy, this means being willing to learn and practice the tools provided to you, even if this type of exercise sometimes means trading sweat for tears.

It is true that our current medical system needs to be better equipped to properly manage brain health. Many still do not have easy and affordable access to therapists or trained brain health professionals who can teach them the tools they need to stay healthy.

Brain health research is also systematically underfunded relative to its impact on society. As a result, significant inequalities, especially for women, persist.

These systemic inequalities are fueled by stigma. One stigma that is often not discussed is that the majority of men report feeling less comfortable seeking treatment than women, even during an active medical crisis. This is due to a long-standing socialized history of male power being equated with holding back emotions—a natural, biological process that defines the human experience.

Depriving men of access to the full emotional spectrum based on outdated gender norms not only hinders the fulfillment of life, but increases the likelihood of violent acts, including suicide. This lack of social acceptability for men to seek help is also likely a significant factor in the increased harm done to women.

Strengthening our brain’s ability to function well is one of the best ways we can positively engage with ourselves and each other, making seeking mental health treatment a strength, not a weakness.

Yet given the stigma that persists, continued efforts to normalize and destigmatize brain health are critical to success. For this reason, I am proud to share that I have a therapist and I actively encourage you to get one.

Trish Zornio is a scientist, lecturer and writer who has worked at some of the top universities and hospitals in the country. She is an avid rock climber and was a 2020 US Senate candidate in Colorado.

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