Is There A Right Time to Seek Counselling?

Is There A Right Time to Seek Counselling?

When we feel ill, we decide to see a doctor and get medication. Most would not argue with that logic and in fact, in these pandemic times, we really should adhere to this simple logic, to keep not just ourselves safe, but everyone else safe as well.

However, not everyone applies that same logic when it comes to seeking counselling. Too often have I had a client who would tell me, “You are my last resort. You have to help me figure this out now.” How did I become the “last resort”?

Sometimes, it becomes apparent that I am the “last resort”, not because my clients have gotten weary from trying to seek help from other mental health professionals, but because they hope to wait out the problem since it does not feel too bad all the time or, perhaps more optimistically, they simply wait for the problem to go away.

Why are people more willing to seek almost immediate medical attention for an upset tummy but tend to hesitate when their heart and/or mind does not feel too well? Perhaps it is our perception of requiring medical attention because we can feel the physical pain or see the physical symptoms of the physiological condition. Oddly enough, symptoms of mental health issues like depression, anxiety, or psychosis can be seen and felt (at least by the person experiencing it) but this does not always cause the person to seek immediate help from a mental health professional. Why is that? Perhaps it is our culture where some believe that mental health issues are not due to anything else but a lack of religious faith or a manifestation of a weak spirit which simply needs to “suck it up”.

Whatever the reason(s) may be, at least in Singapore, it is only recently that mental health issues have become more openly discussed and more people are willing to seek counselling to address their psychological and/or emotional concerns. As much as the pandemic has brought about much hardship and suffering around the world, it has also (finally) highlighted the need for us to pay attention to mental health.

So why did it take a pandemic for us to get to this realization? I think it could be because often times, when someone is feeling very distressed or extremely anxious, there is a tendency to dismiss it. We may hope that this will go away in time but at times, it does not and in fact it may get worse. By that time, it usually feels “desperate” for the clients. Usually that is manifested by ultimatums given by family members, intimate partners or the very real risk of losing a job or being expelled from school. And this is the point they usually come knocking on my door.

Unlike medical issues, seeking immediate help for mental health issues is a delicate balance between being overly paranoid about ‘having mental problems’ and waiting too long before it becomes too big a problem.

I like to use the example of a can of carbonated soda to perhaps illustrate finding this balance of when we should seek counselling. Life events will shake us up and like the carbonated soda, pressure builds up for us due to adverse life events like divorce, death, or a pandemic. At times, life has a way of showing us that we may need a little extra help in coping with some of these curveballs in life. When we ignore these “signals”, the pressure continues to build and will eventually need to be released. Waiting for this “release” or even close to this point of release may not be optimal when it comes to seeking counselling. In other words, you do not have to wait until you have every single symptom of the mental condition.

And this does not mean that every counselling relationship will last for months or years either. Just as we are taught that prevention is better than cure for medical issues, the same applies to mental health as well. The sooner we seek help, the earlier the counsellor may be able to help the client manage the issues that arise.

Having said that, I do not mean to belittle or minimize the challenges we all face in seeking help. I believe that it takes tremendous courage to seek help from a total stranger. And this can be especially difficult if the person is struggling with trauma or very complex emotional struggles.

All I am saying is that where possible, I hope we all can seek help for our mental health issues before our “soda cans” burst from all the pressure built within.