How To Ask For Help with Mental Health Care

Woman looking away surrounded by helpful hands

When I first saw a therapist at age 19, I hated the idea. Less than a year out of a sexually abusive relationship with a predatory high school teacher, I was determined not to let that affect me. I wasn’t “crazy” and I wasn’t weak. I didn’t need help, and I wouldn’t ask for help. Most of all, I didn’t want my parents to know I struggled — that would require vulnerability — and I wasn’t about to let anybody in. I could manage on my own.

Meanwhile, I wrote long anonymous emails back and forth with an organization called Samaritans all the way over in the U.K., because I wanted to die, I self-injured regularly, and I simply couldn’t imagine I had a future at all. As far as I was concerned, my life was already over. I desperately wanted to feel better, but if I asked for help, I thought I would be giving up.

Eventually I couldn’t take any more. I found the courage to tell my parents I wanted therapy without actually admitting the depth of my trouble. They gladly set me up with a local counselor. Through working with her I got off the dangerous mental health roller coaster I was riding, and found enough stability to stay safe and start to recover.

I’ve now been in therapy for more than a decade with different therapists, but that first step as a teenager — admitting I needed help and asking for it — was by far the hardest.

Reasons It’s Hard To Ask For Help

Reaching out for help, while it may seem simple, isn’t easy. But why is it so hard to ask for help? Someone with a broken bone or the flu doesn’t usually hesitate to call their doctor. With mental health, this process is a little more complicated.

First, mental health still has a strong stigma attached to it worldwide. People fear they will be labeled “crazy” if they see a mental health professional, and worry it could impact their livelihood or reputation if anyone finds out. Illnesses that affect our mind also come with the idea that it’s “all in your head” or it’s a simple “attitude adjustment.” As if overcoming depression is as simple as “just” getting out of bed, or panic attacks can be cured by telling someone to “calm down.”

“Many people believe they are inadequate or a failure if they have to admit something is ‘wrong’ with their mental health,” says psychologist David Susman on his blog. “Further, they believe they ‘should be able to handle things’ on their own without assistance and that they must be weak or inferior to have to ask for help.”

As a result of this stigma societally and on a more personal level, nearly 60 percent of those with a mental illness don’t get treatment in a given year, leaving many to suffer when they don’t have to. Not to mention countless others looking to get through a hard time who don’t have a mental illness.

When To Seek Help

People seek out help for a number of reasons, and you don’t need to wait until there’s a crisis to get support. It could be a little nagging feeling in the back of your mind when weighing a big decision, struggling with a relationship, noticing you feel more worried lately, feeling unhappy with your job, or even wanting to grow as person.

“Sometimes the signs are obvious but at other times, something may feel slightly off and you can’t figure out what it is,” relays Dr. David Sack in Psychology Today, regarding knowing when to seek help. “Contrary to popular misconception, you don’t have to be ‘crazy,’ desperate, or on the brink of a meltdown to go to therapy.”

At the same time, warning signs such as wanting to hurt yourself or feeling suicidal require immediate intervention, as well as serious symptoms of some mental illnesses like hallucinations, high levels of dissociation, or mania. In addition, more subtle symptoms like losing interest in favorite pastimes, changes in sleep and eating habits, lack of motivation, or anxiety can all be signs of an underlying mental illness best treated with the support of a professional. Pay attention to the signals your mind and body are giving you.

How To Ask For Help

Actually reaching out for help is a big step, and one that shows not weakness, but significant courage. When you’re ready, the good news is there’s a lot of potential resources to turn to, though it may seem overwhelming at first. A primary-care doctor, in-person and online therapists, support groups, community mental health programs and clinics, employee assistance programs, student counseling centers, and national helplines can all be options.

Explore online to see what’s out there. Browse Talkspace’s website and insightful blog articles, which give you an idea of what to expect with online therapy, and provide positive stories about how Talkspace therapists have helped their clients.

Psychology Today offers a database of in-person counselors all over the country. If you have health insurance, you can use their “find a doctor” function to start a search.

Consider calling an anonymous helpline. While services such as the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline handle serious crises, it’s not all they do. Their trained counselors have a wealth of information at their fingertips to help find support in your area. The same is true for the Trevor Project’s LGBTQ-focused helpline, the National Alliance on Mental Illnesses’ hotline, the National Sexual Assault Hotline, and others.

If you’re comfortable, tell trusted friends or family you’re looking for additional support. Ask for a recommendation of a counselor who may have helped them and ask what the process was like. Was it weird to be in therapy? How does it feel to spill your guts to someone who starts out as a stranger? Was the process worth it?

See if your loved one will help you find resources and sit with you as you call or even take you to your first appointment. Remember that asking for help is about what you need and deserve, and you aren’t alone.

When In Crisis

If you’re in a crisis situation and have thoughts of suicide or hurting yourself or others, take action right away. Call a crisis hotline like the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline, visit your nearest emergency room or call 911, and ask loved ones to stay with you. Your safety is the number one priority.

While not every moment of our lives can be happy, we all deserve to feel like there’s somewhere to go when we need help, whether with the small things or the big curveballs life sometimes throws at us. Don’t be afraid to reach out for professional mental health support, and know it’s a courageous decision to make for yourself.

“Why go through life just barely making it, feeling miserable all the while when you have the chance to live fully and feel happy? I realized I deserved better; I owed it to myself to get help,” writes Becca Joy for The Mighty. “It’s OK to ask for help. In fact, it’s brave. It’s strong. It’s wise. It’s hard, but it’s worth it.”

Published by

Renee Fabian

Contributor