I remember the first time my parents offered me mental health resources. “Do you want to go see a counselor?” I froze, confused and angry. I remember myself screaming, “I’m not the one that’s crazy!” Oh, if only my 42-year-old self could talk to that angry 15-year-old. What might she say? She might say: “No, you’re NOT crazy. Going to a counselor doesn’t mean you’re crazy.”
First of all, if you have to go to the doctor for surgery on your ACL, does it mean you’re weak and a failure? No! In the same way, going to a mental health provider doesn’t mean you’re crazy. It may mean you have a mental health condition (like a torn ACL is a physical health condition) that needs mending. Secondly, often times people go to counseling not for a mental health condition, but to work out some really difficult life situations that are normal to a 15-year-old's life circumstances. But still, you might be feeling nervous about going to see a counselor so let’s answer some common questions:
What is mental health?
Mental health/illness is simply what it sounds like. It’s the HEALTH of the brain and body system. When our brain is sick it often impacts the way we think about ourselves, the world, or others. It may even impact our behavior, possibly in ways that negatively impact our relationships, school, or future prospects. When these impacts become severe enough that they have a negative impact on your life and on your feelings then they may be considered unhealthy. After all… an illness isn’t an illness unless it negatively impacts your life or your ability to enjoy life.
How do I know my mental health is “normal”?
I remember a colleague of mine saying to me, “What is ‘normal’? It’s a setting on a washing machine.” I agree wholeheartedly. Normal is over-rated. But for giggles, let’s just say that “normal” IS having negative thoughts. Everyone experiences them. Everyone experiences anxiety about a test or worries about their future, or anger about their parents' rules. These are normal situations and often people come to counseling to navigate them, because while they are normal they are often REALLY difficult to cope with. When is it not normal? In other words, when is it extreme enough you will want to seek help immediately?
For any of these examples, or even just for navigating normal life problems that are REALLY hard, it’s OK to seek help; just as okay as seeing a surgeon to repair your ACL.
What do teens talk about in counseling?
ANYTHING! But common topics include:
Medical issues: Some teens have a medical issue they are navigating and finding difficult to balance with school responsibilities. Also, medical issues can make a person feel isolated and set apart from their peers, which can feel lonely.
Violence: Many teens experience violence; either at home or in a dating relationship. Going through trauma is something that CAN be healed.
Stress: I tell my teens' parents, “I’m really not sure there is another time in life where stress is so high.” Balancing school responsibilities, the uncertainty of the life ahead of you, peers' expectations, parents' expectations, all the while trying to determine who you are as a human? Ugh, I’d never go back!
Relationships: Many teens experience the death of a loved one or a first lost love or a move that keeps them feeling isolated and cut off. Losing a relationship, especially at a time in life when peer relationships hold greatest importance developmentally, is life changing and often needs extra support to navigate. Many teens have worries about romantic relationships and sex. No topic is off limits.
Is it uncomfortable talking about problems?
Yes, probably. I’m not going to sugar coat it. Talking to a counselor about your problems/worries/mental health can feel awkward and scary. It just means you’re trying something new. That feeling, when you’re scared and pushing through to talk anyway, well…. that is the very definition of courage; “to feel fear and do it anyway.” It gets easier over time, with the right counselor, and eventually you’ll discover you can talk to them about things you feel you could never talk to anyone else about. We call it a “safe space.”
What if I don’t like my therapist?
Counseling is wonderful. I wish more people would do it. The world would be a better place. It can also be really frustrating if it’s not the right ‘fit.’ A good mental health counselor will NEVER take your decisions personally. First and foremost is your care and making sure you're getting what you need. To that end, you have FULL permission to FIRE THEM, to quit therapy with them. Whatever you do, don’t quit looking for your fit. Once you’ve decided it’s what you need, keep going until you find the right fit. On average people see 4-6 therapists before finding their right ‘fit’. I tell my clients “give it three sessions with any therapist. If after three sessions you don't feel comfortable, it’s likely not a good fit and you keep looking.”
Other things to know.
Will a counselor tell me what to do?
A Mental health counselor is NOT there so solve your problems. They are there to help you clarify your OWN solutions. Yes, we trust you that much, even if you don’t trust yourself. Yes, we may problem solve with you, but we will never (or should never) tell you what your solution should be. If we do… well, that’s not a good fit. Find someone else.
Sex/touch/flirting is NEVER okay.
Your therapist is a medical provider that you are seeking help from. This means your therapist needs to keep you safe at all times. It is never okay to touch you sexually (even if you believe you want that), to make sexual comments or have sex with you. It is an abuse of the ‘power’ within the relationship and is not helping you. If anything uncomfortable occurs, ALWAYS tell a trusted adult. You have a right to be safe when you seek help.
Will they tell?
No. In Idaho you have full right to confidentiality at age 14, which means we can’t tell anyone anything without your consent (with some exceptions that include you being hurt or intending to hurt someone else). Parents, this is hard, I know. It’s also really important for the care of your teen that they feel safe enough to talk about anything and everything. Teens AND parents - we typically try to strike a balance between protecting your right to privacy (teen) and being sure you’re safe (so parents, take heart).
Many more teens are seeking help these days and we encourage you to not wait until it feels unmanageable before you do as well.