Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Therapy: what's with the stigma?

I was having a conversation with someone who we'll refer to as a "friend of a friend" whose child (a middle schooler) was a sort-of-witness to a sexual assault. I say sort-of-witness because the child didn't see the assault; she was approached after the fact by the victim who told her all about the incident--in all its grisly details. The child of this "friend of a friend" was smart and reported the assault, but because the assault happened between some of the child's friends things have gotten ugly. Anyway, my "friend of a friend's" child was deeply disturbed by what happened and has been having nightmares that are intense enough to keep her awake and never seems to feel safe. In the course of events it was suggested that this child should see a therapist to help her process the whole sordid event. The "friend of a friend" was not happy with that suggestion. The "friend of a friend" believes that if word got out the child was in therapy there would be a lot of negative consequences. Basically this friend believes that sending her child to therapy would be worse for her than the fear and nightmares that have been bothering the child for more than a month.

Now, I want to be clear: I'm NOT criticizing this person for choosing to avoid therapy. Everyone has to make choices for their own families as they see fit. All my information is second hand, so I'm NOT judging.

What I am wondering is this: does therapy still have that kind of stigma for most people? I thought that as a culture Americans were over therapists as modern incarnation of snake oil sellers and therapy as something only for weirdos. Am I wrong about that?

And another question: is it different among LDS? In our cultural subset are we NOT over it?


Kelly said...

I don't think it's Mormon, I think it's American to kind of tease people who go to therapy. I mean, think about TV shows or movies that have people who go to therapy. They tend to be caricatures of people with the weirdest problems, never normal people with real problems who need to talk them out and gain clarity and perspective. Like it or not, most of us still think of it that way.

I think, for example, of the TV show Monk, where the main character has obsessive-compulsive disorder, and goes to therapy. While there, he rearranges the couch cushions in the waiting room. When the therapist gets a new white-noise machine, Monk automatically complains about the pitch or noise level or something being different. The therapy changes nothing about Monk. And when the time is up, the therapist kicks Monk out the door, grateful to be rid of him and to collect his money from him.

The other TV extreme are self-absorbed women who go to therapy just to talk about themselves -- for lack of a best friend, I suppose. I think the media has done a great job of putting that stigma on therapy.

Why I personally don't go to therapy -- money. I bet that's the bottom line. Like I think my youngest could totally benefit from it, but at what cost? How much is too much, before you just tell yourself or your kids to just deal with it?

Elizabeth-W said...

When people come to my office, I always ask if they've ever seen a counselor/therapist before. If they say 'no', I ask them what their expectations are. Do you that just about everybody is surprised that I don't have a couch? (I do have comfy leather chairs and a footrest.)
Who I blame is Woody Allen. If the person is over 40 I'll make a comment about the Woody Allen model, and they totally get that. Blame Woody!! :D
I think taking your child to a therapist is a very scary thing. Therapists have tons of power. I would be very careful--now don't think I'm saying not to. I'm just saying I personally don't see kids under about 15 years old because I don't feel confident in working with small children. I think of therapy with kids as being a specialty in itself. If I were ever going to take my child, I would be doing research on what population the therapist typically sees, what kind of continuing education the person has done recently regarding working with children, etc.
I think to some extent there is an LDS bias against counseling. In my professional lifetime I remember talks at Conference that were not counselor-friendly. Things have changed A LOT in 20 years. I'm sure by the time our children are our age, the stigma will be greatly decreased.

Laura said...

Kelly-that's a good point about the money. That puts limits on it for me, too. And, yeah, I guess I should maybe concede that American culture is not so therapy friendly. But, I don't know, Dr. Cox on Scrubs had a therapist and that was cool. I've only seen Monk once or twice so I'll have to trust your judgement on that one. But don't most people realize that there IS a time and place for therapy? That sometimes it IS the responsible thing to do?

Elizabeth--you make a good point about the therapist being in a position of power with kids. As a parent I would never haphazardly pick someone to work with my children in ANY situation, let alone something as difficult to manage as feelings. I agree that LDS rhetoric about mental illness is changing. I was surprised to see the Ensign article a couple years ago about mental illness. The chatter seems more matter of fact these days in general.

Laura said...

Oh, and p.s., I don't go to therapy because I lack friends. (Hi Kelly!) I go because my friends honestly don't have the time to deal with my issues or (no offense here) the knowledge necessary to help me unravel the complexities of my mood disorder. For all the therapists who would like to say it but don't, a college degree and training do matter! They do have specialized skills!

Breakdown said...

I think the stigma is that therapy is for people that have problems. So if you go to therapy you have to admit to not only yourself but to almost everyone around you that you have a problem that you need help with, and no one likes to admit that they have a problem much less that they need help with it.

As for myself, I've found therapy extremely helpful. I would say that it saved my marriage. We didn't have any real serious problems, per se, but my work offered free counseling at the time and we decided that it couldn't hurt. Afterwords my wife and I felt that it was one of the best decisions we've ever made.

And therapy doesn't need to be expensive, BYU has a comprehensive clinic where you can go for about $10 to $15 a session. Sure you get students, but I feel that the little education that they do have can be a lifesaver.

And one other thing that people worry about is that the therapist will have you coming back week after week till you die. It's not true, after three sessions with our marriage counselor he told us not to come back unless we began to have problems again, and we haven't gone back for 5 years.

Laura said...

Breakdown--I think you're right about the admitting a problem thing. Perhaps the problem isn't with the therapy itself but rather with our perceptions of ourselves--it takes a lot of humility to admit you need help.

Anonymous said...

I think it is still a Mormon thing. I was in a Sunday school class a few years back, and a bishopric member stated that people who need therapy don't trust Christ enough. We got into a verbal disagreement, but nobody with authority called him on it.

Sabrina said...

I personally don't have a problem with therapy. There is definitely a place for it, when someone has either been through a traumatic situation, or has mental illness of any kind. I think I probably used to have more of a stigma about therapy of any kind, but having a brother-in-law with mental illness has really opened up my mind.

Also I know it is completely different, but I used to think speech therapy was for people that weren't smart or something...then I had a daughter who needed it, and she is a smart kid, and the therapy has completely transformed her. Speech therapy has been life changing for her, literally. So I guess my life experiences have really changed my outlook on therapy of any kind, to where I am pretty open to the fact that it can really help people, and it is not something to be ashamed of at all.

I guess I can sympathize with the "friend of a friend" who is concerned about the stigma, because even if adults "get it" some kids can really be mean. It still seems like it would be work it for her kid, though.

Lucy said...

I had to smile at the comment that Anonymous wrote because I have heard the exact same thing said in church meetings. There is a stigma about it in the Church. I just don't know what the answer is. I have tried therapy and it has not worked for me at all. I have an extremely hard time opening up the gates of all that is inside my head lo these many years. And I don't know how to get beyond that. As it turned out, neither did the therapist. So I just muster on trying to make light of life in a blog that does more therapy for me than any doctor ever did. I know this sounds strange, but talking with somebody who understands is incredibly refreshing.

Laura said...

Lucy-I'm glad you have found something that works for you. It makes me sad that some people still don't understand that giving your grief to Christ is a process--which sometimes involves help, whether from a bishop or a therapist. Anyway, I hope you stop by again!

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