What would happen if we weren’t so stoic and secretive about psychological difficulties? Illumen Clinical Psychologist Kathryn Harvey gives her take on the stigma of seeing a psychologist.

 

“Did you manage to get away from work today ok?” I ask my client.. “Yeah, no problem, I just tell my boss you’re my physio”. It’s something I hear often, added to the list of other excuses people use to get out of work to come and see me. 

At a time when the mental health of New Zealand is at a crisis point, we need to talk about stigma. According to Statistics New Zealand, one in four of us will experience mental health issues (including anxiety and depression) in a given year. My hunch is that it’s much more than that; I know that many who suffer are ‘flying under the radar’ so to speak. I’ve been there, and my experience has taught me that there is no badge of honour to be earned for declaring perfect mental health. 

We know that if addressed early, mental health difficulties can resolve and provide opportunities for growth, improved quality of life, relationships, parenting and performance at work. Unfortunately, the stigma of seeing a psychologist or any mental health practitioner for that matter is alive and well. Dare to declare it, and you might get met with raised eyebrows – “is it that bad?” Things are improving, but we’ve still got a long way to go. 

What we need is less secrecy and stoicism when it comes to psychological struggles. If people knew they weren’t “the only one”, crazy, or weak, then perhaps seeking help wouldn’t be so shameful or scary. 

When I was setting up my first private practice some years ago now, I was given the advice that I should stagger my appointments so that my clients wouldn’t have to cross paths. To avoid any awkwardness, I presumed. People don’t have to hide from each other in the waiting from of a doctor’s office, so why is seeing a psychologist so different? Part of the problem is that we still haven’t done enough to reframe the way people think about mental health versus other health issues. We would never leave someone with cancer or diabetes to self-manage, but that’s what many with psychological distress do because they’re too afraid of being judged. 

I recently heard of one woman travelling an hour across town to see a psychologist so that she doesn’t bump into anyone she knew. Something has to change.

So how can we change it? This is such a big topic with many complexities. I completely understand the private and sensitive nature of many psychological difficulties, and the need for these to be shared in a confidential setting. I’m not for a minute suggesting we start hanging our pain from the flagpole. 

But I do think there is a lot that can be done to normalise psychological issues and seeking treatment for these. I think firstly we can all work to reframe the way we speak about mental health, and drop terms like “crazy” and “nuts”. I would like to see more psychology centres in high profile locations and main streets. Perhaps Psychology as a profession needs a rebrand – less focus on the heavy stuff, and more PR on what we actually do –  teaching mental skills and improving emotional health. As Psychologists, let’s self-disclose around our own vulnerabilities a bit more, (when done carefully and authentically this can be very powerful) – I think that every time a Psychologist shares that they too have struggles and see therapists, a small piece of stigma is squashed. I’m seeing such positive change in the corporate sector where some organisations are now putting in place psychological support alongside other workplace benefits. I would like to see New Zealand adopt a program similar to the Medicare Scheme in Australia where anyone, regardless of situation, can access subsidised sessions with a psychologist.  

For years now I’ve been workshopping an idea with a close friend of mine in jest – a shop on the main street, “Coffee and Causal Advice”. Come in for a coffee, and I’ll lend you my ear….(although I think the logistics of that one still need to be thought through!).  

I look forward to a future where seeing a psychologist for mental health is no different from seeing a chiropractor for an adjustment. No need to sneak in to the therapy room unseen, or lie to our boss about the “appointment” we’re going to each week. 

Let’s all try and do something to get us there.