The Gift Of Therapy
Note: This article is an opinion piece and is not and should not be considered mental health advice or clinical support. For support, please seek professional help.
The theme for this year’s Mental Health Awareness Week is, quite aptly, loneliness. While the past two years of social isolation have urged us to rejig the way we work, reshuffle how we spend our time and rethink what to prioritise, there is still a long way to go to truly break down mental health stigma.
Mental health is not just a fashionable buzz phrase. Nor is it a fluffy, fuzzy, cuddly concept that conveniently nestles under the broad "wellbeing" umbrella. Mental health lies at the crux of our productivity, health and happiness. It is the very thing that underpins all that we think, feel and act.
Depression is ranked third in the global burden of disease and is projected to take the top place by 2030, in just 8 years. 1 in 4 of us will at some point encounter a mental health condition in our lifetime. 4 in 4 of us are affected by mental health.
However, in a typical Hong Kong household, mental health is something that is regularly swept under the carpet. We discuss money, we discuss people, we discuss wars – but we do not discuss depression. We are seeing a gradual shift in the younger generation, but for many baby-boomers, the simple idea of going to therapy seems like an inconceivably painful and humiliating proposition. They may show all the symptoms of a mental health condition - but with a stiff upper lip they carry on, stoically, obliterating anyone and anything that stands in their way. As their symptoms exacerbate (and usually only to the point where they morph into physical ailments), they may seek help from their local GP - who may prescribe them some antidepressants. They take them, obediently, without mentioning the topic ever again, dragging along a heavy trail of unresolved issues.
While antidepressants are of course useful and necessary to lift and support people with depression through the darkest of phases, the value of therapy and building connections should not be glossed over. Although there are still huge gaps in both the availability of mental health professionals and accessibility of mental health care, we are seeing more and more accessible options in the city - some offering sliding scale fees based on income and personal circumstances.
Depression is deeply lonely. In the book Lost Connections, Johann Hari eloquently articulates the less-explored causes of depression. The book delves into the crucial importance of connection – with our purpose, with other people, with our environment – in battling depression. Meaningful connections flourish when we understand ourselves and others better, and an avenue in which to do so is though talk therapy.
Whether it be to substitute or supplement medication, talk therapy can help us explore deep-rooted issues and convictions, work through trauma (which we often nonchalantly but stubbornly bury in the depths of our memory), and untangle toxic ways in which we perceive ourselves and others. It is a gift that, when unwrapped with care, can help us regain trust, reach our potential and embrace authenticity.
"We don’t have to impress the therapist or reassure them of our sanity. We need to tell them what is going on. There is no need to stop them thinking we are perverted, odd or terrified. We can gingerly hint at some very dark things about us and will find that our interlocutor isn’t horrified or offended but on the contrary, calmly interested. We’re not – we’re learning – monsters or freaks. We arrive at the opposite of loneliness." - The School of Life
Going to therapy is a brave thing to do. It’s an active choice that we make to take control of our emotions and lives, and an investment for both ourselves and the people around us. We need to reframe how we think about going to see a psychologist such that it’s no different from going to an osteopath, a radiologist or a physiotherapist. It is indeed, no different. No matter where we are on the mental health spectrum, therapy will find its place: in uplifting, supporting, challenging, nourishing, confronting and empowering. Mental health care is a long-term investment and a lifelong pursuit.
It’s easy to think that it’s not about us, that our spouse/ boss/ partner/ best friend/ son/ colleague is the problem and therefore should go to therapy. They probably should. But so should we. We can’t control others' actions but we do have a responsibility to manage our own emotions, demons and fears.
If you have lost all motivation at work, find it difficult to focus, feel constantly irritable and lost interest in activities that you previously enjoyed – go to therapy.
If you are burying a painful memory with a loved one and avoiding topics, people or places that may trigger that memory – go to therapy.
If you have inexplicable anger issues and outbursts with people around you – go to therapy.
If you are feeling stuck in you career, relationship or your personal life – go to therapy.
If you are struggling to articulate your needs and constantly seek validation from others – go to therapy.
If you are considering having children – go to therapy.
If you are a human, are lucky enough to have the means to access mental health care – go to therapy.
To see change in the world, we first need to start from within. Open the gift of therapy.
Wrapping up with a wise quip from some wise guy:
“To put the world in order, we must first put the nation in order; to put the nation in order, we must first put the family in order; to put the family in order; we must first cultivate our personal life; we must first set our hearts right.”― Confucius