When to Seek Help
When to Seek Help — and How to Find It
By Jeane Whitehouse, Ph.D. and Mark Kline PsyD
In an increasingly stressful world, more and more people consider professional assistance for a personal, family, or work problem. But they often hesitate, uncertain whether they really need help. Some feel their concern is too small, others fear their problem is so large that nothing could help.
How can one tell when to reach out for assistance? Although there are no absolute answers, there are six signs that generally indicate it is time to seek help.
1. When coping methods haven’t worked. You’ve done what you usually do when something is wrong—talked with friends or family, diverted yourself with work or hobbies, or tried several direct approaches which have failed. You’re beginning to run out of energy to cope and may be feeling demoralized.
2. When unhappiness outweighs happiness. It feels like an effort to face the day; usual sources of pleasure seem dimmer, less joyous; you have a constant nagging feeling that something is wrong even if you can’t label it.
3. When a crisis or unexpected loss occurs. An accident, physical illness, death, or divorce puts burdens on a family and may lead to temporary difficulties. Even normal developmental events (birth of a child, marriage, moving) can be stressful and lead to negative behaviors.
4. When you sabotage yourself. You can see what might help you but you can’t get yourself to do what you know you should. Some “force” seems to be keeping you from using your own strengths.
5. When a negative pattern develops. When someone loses friend after friend, alienates one person after another, cannot maintain a stable work situation, or has a chronic feeling of dissatisfaction, a pattern is developing which is unhealthy and self- defeating.
6. When symptoms develop. One of the most common reasons people seek help is the onset of unexplainable symptoms—anxiety, fears, depression, drinking, or physical symptoms. When these are no longer mild enough to ignore, they push people to seek help for themselves or their loved ones.
Tackling a problem early is not only easier, it prevents further difficulties. Remember, too, the real issue is often not whether one absolutely needs help, but whether one can benefit from it. When in doubt, it can be useful to discuss this very question with a professional over the phone. We are always glad to help people sort out concerns—no matter how large or small.
Choosing the Right Therapist
Many problems warrant a call to a professional, but making that call can be difficult. Most of us dislike admitting that we need help. People also worry about finding a good counselor. There are many kinds of therapists—and many mixed feelings about us: we are seen as having insight into hidden problems but also as charlatans who can’t always be trusted. People wonder how to make the right choice.
The most common start is to seek a referral from a trusted source—a friend, clergyman, family doctor, or, for a child, a school counselor. But once you contact a therapist, how can you tell if he/she is right for you or your child? Here again, there are no hard and fast answers, but there are some guidelines.
1. Promptness. Given the difficulty of making that first call, it is important that the therapist respond directly. You should receive a prompt response and be offered an appointment within a week or two.
2. Focus on your problems. To succeed, counseling must respond toyour specific needs. A sure sign you have not found the right counselor is if he spends time talking about himself rather than addressing your concerns.
3. Feeling understood. Counseling requires skill, but it depends on a bond of understanding. This takes time, but should be evident early on. Initial meetings will focus on what’s wrong, how long it’s been that way, and background information. The therapist will ask questions and lead the discussion. You may not be able to assess her skill; you can tell if you feel heard and understood.
4. Clear privacy policies. You are entitled to confidential, private mental health care. A good provider will outline their privacy policies and your rights as a client. While professionals are required to break confidentiality under certain circumstances (such as imminent danger to the patient or someone else), you should otherwise expect your privacy to be protected.
5. An action plan. After two or three meetings, the counselor should be able to offer an analysis of the problem and suggest a treatment plan. The analysis should feel correct and the plan reasonable—to you.
These guidelines have a common bottom line: You are purchasing a service and have the right to be a careful consumer. If you are uncertain or dissatisfied, don’t be afraid to say so. No therapist can be all things to all people. A good one will be chiefly concerned that you get the help you need, not that you get help from him or her—and will gladly try to find you a better match, if necessary. When clients are able to participate actively in this way, it makes a successful counseling experience much more likely.
Dr. Kline is Clinical Director and Dr. Whitehouse is Intake Director at The Human Relations Service in Wellesley, MA. Dr. Kline can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org