There is a social stigma in making an appointment with a psychologist or therapist that is unlike a visit to the doctor or dentist.
Whenever something goes wrong in our bodies, such as catching the flu or having a toothache, we are typically not ashamed to seek professional expertise to help rid our ailment. But admitting that there is something wrong with our mind seems to reveal something much more vulnerable.
In a recent online survey of 660 individuals, 26% said they thought about seeing a psychologist but later didn’t because they were “too afraid or had too much pride.” That is one in every five people who thought at one point that they had some kind of mental issue to resolve, but were too reluctant to seek advice from an expert.
What about our culture and taboos might contribute to this reluctance? What are we afraid of?
Perhaps a part of our aversion can be explained in regards to the stereotypical psychologist, often perpetuated in movies and TV. Films like One Flew Over The Cuckoos Nest (and Shutter Island, to a large extent) make psychologists out to be cruel and inhumane. Other films like I Heart Huckabees and Couples Retreat make therapists seem detached from reality and overly eccentric. Meanwhile, Kevin Spacey in Shrink and Billy Crystal in Analyze That are portrayed as unhappy hypocrites, who love to give advice to their clients, but can never apply it successfully to their own lives. These are just some of the most salient examples, but the myths are equally reinforced in other movies where psychologists play minor roles. Who wants to visit people like that?
For those who have never had an experience with an actual psychologist, these are the sources of information individuals use to formulate their first impressions. It’s not very pretty. For many, psychologists in society are at a foreign and almost mystical status. We don’t regularly go to one like we would an annual check-up to the doctor or dentist, so they remain unfamiliar to us until we absolutely have to see one (that is if we actually work up the courage to do so).
But the biggest myth is that psychology is only for those who are already mentally ill.
What about modern day psychology can be offered to the average healthy and functioning human being? Imagine if psychologists, like doctors, did periodic check-ups on healthy individuals – they could perform diagnostics to catch any early symptoms of mental impairment (especially ones that come with age, like dementia), and they could provide preventative care for memory problems, attention disorders, anxiety, and depression. Maybe mental health institutions can even provide easily accessible seminars that individuals would be encouraged to attend once or twice a year. Insurance companies could work together with these health institutions, and offer lower rates to those who are pro-active in maintaining mental health.
You wouldn’t only have to go to a psychologist when you are on the brink of self-destruction, you could also go in order to preserve or even improve mental health. With this kind of purpose, psychology could become less of a taboo, and more an active part in our everyday lives. It would be seen as a desirable luxury and not a crutch.
And the fact is this is what psychology is turning into. It has evolved greatly over the past century and more people should know about this. Psychology is no longer only about treating those with hysteria or psychosis, through poorly understood methods of hypnosis or psychoanalysis (like how it was practiced in the late 19th century/early 20th century). Psychology, in a word, has become more and more de-mystified, and we have finer methods now to improve health. We no longer should feel like a loony if we wish to seek out today’s psychologists, therapists, social workers, counselors, or consultants.
This is a good thing for the future of psychology. There are now many new fields dedicated to the benefit of “average, functioning” individuals: sports psychology, positive psychology, industrial-organizational, educational psychology, consumer psychology, law psychology, military psychology etc. The list goes on much more, and psychology is constantly spreading its influence into new areas of life.
Every individual can find research in these fields and apply them to their everyday life. Seeking extra advice from experts, through counseling or coaching, should be seen as a legitimate form of improving our quality of life (just like when we see a doctor to get a new diet or exercise plan approved, or when we hire a gym trainer, or a diet specialist). Mental health is just as serious as physical health, and the word “illness” doesn’t even need to enter the dialogue anymore. This should make others more open to the benefits of psychology research, without being worried that they will be labeled as “sick in the head.”
Once we come to terms that psychology is a broad field not only concerned with mental disorders – the stigma surrounding psychology begins to evaporate, because psychology has something to offer everyone, there is always room for improvement, and seeking improvement should never be something we are ashamed of.
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