10 Things Every Student Should Know Before Seeing a Therapist

I saw a therapist. My experience wasn’t great.

I’ve equated the process of trying to find the right therapist to the dating scene. You mentally prepare to put yourself out there but after the first interaction you think—Was I supposed to feel a connection? How do I know if I am settling? What do I tell my parents about him/her?

The mental health treatment that you respond best to will depend on your mental health conditions, obviously. And to many, a kick-ass talk-therapy session can be a saving grace. If you are considering talk-therapy for the first time, there are a few things you should know to get the most out of your experience.

1. You don’t need to be mentally ill to talk about your mental health.

Consider a therapy appointment to be the same as a doctor’s appointment. It’s a resource that you are entitled to, whether you have a diagnosed illness or not. Your physical and mental health deserve equal levels of commitment, preventative and maintenance care.

To some, therapy provides professional assistance in working out deeply rooted issues brought on by traumas, abuses etc. To others, therapy offers an impartial set of ears that will listen to the nuances of everyday life.

Depending on what you’d like to speak to a mental health professional about, the duration of treatment may vary. Sometimes 1-2 sessions or a check-in is all that’s needed, sometimes it’s 6-8 working sessions or ongoing regular check-ins. The length of each session may also vary depending on the arrangements you make with your therapist.

Whatever your case may be, your therapist should treat your concerns with dignity and respect.

2. You have options. Sort of.

In highschool, I spoke to an appointed therapist whose fees were covered through my dad’s employment benefits.

Her room was staged like the set of a 90’s sitcom. Old couch florals and vintage picture frames that held images of her 15 year-old daughter—a fact she later used as leverage to convince me that she knew “exactly what I was going through.”

When I got to University, I considered therapy again.

To many students, campus resources are excellent to have at their disposal. The professionals on campus are highly-skilled and have tons of experience dealing with students, specifically.

I feared that a campus therapist would views me like a professor views a student in a first year Anthropology class—just another faceless person to be evaluated according to the same standards as everyone else. I felt that I would just be settling for the most affordable and convenient option, similar to my high-school therapy experience.

In hindsight, I did not know that the field of psychology employs a range of mental health professionals that specialize in varying branches. I falsely assumed that all therapists were similar.

Psychiatrists work within the realm of medicine and are qualified to carry out assessments, make diagnoses, assign treatments and prescribe medication. They can work with people on a biological and psychological level. However, psychiatrists are in high demand and can be difficult to access. They should not be confused with psychologists who apply their knowledge of the mind through mostly a scientific perspective. Psychologists may use behavioural, cognitive and other therapies in your sessions, but they do not prescribe medication.

NOTE: If you are considering seeing someone on campus, contact your school’s wellness centre and ask what resources they have available to students. Do some research and stay open minded. You may need to shop around for a while before you find someone that is the right fit for you.

3. Keep it real with your therapist.

In talk-therapy, you do most of the talking.

Your therapist will ask you thought-provoking question after question, leaving it mainly up to you to reach those light-bulb moments. Naturally, your therapist will learn more about you than vise versa.

That power-imbalance can seem intimidating, at first.

I always tried to craft my responses in a way that made me sound mature, sophisticated, and like a dainty 15 year-old that had never done wrong. If she pressed her lips in dissatisfaction, I felt I owed her a justification for whatever I had just said. If she smiled, I felt I had scored brownie points. I was trying to impress her.

The problem was that each time I went back to her office I knew I would have to live up to the facade that I created for myself.

4. Not every piece of advice they give will be right for you.

Therapists are experts on mental health. They are not, at least in the beginning, experts on you. They are there to guide you based on the limited information they have about you, and what they know about the demons you have been facing. Not every piece of advice is going to be revolutionary—and you are not obliged to take it.

I opened up to my therapist about some anxieties I had been experiencing and I remember listening to her cookie-cutter response thinking ‘You’re kidding, right? Like, is that from a textbook? Did you look-up “has confidence issues” in an index somewhere and the solution said, “orange pekoe tea and yoga?”

I was not convinced that mindful breathing in a hot room would help me tackle the politics of being a teenager.

Sometimes a therapist’s seemingly absurd advice can offer a new perspective. Other times, your therapist may confirm what you already know, and being accountable to someone is the motivation you need to make a change.

You know yourself better than anyone else and every action you take regarding your health is entirely up to you.

5. Therapists are not all-knowing gods.

They don’t always get it right. Even educated professionals don’t have all the answers, because mental illness isn’t entirely objective. There isn’t always a scientific test that could say for certain what mental illness you have, and what the appropriate treatment would call for.

Diagnosing mental illness rests heavily upon observation, and finding the right treatment can sometimes depend on trial and error.

Give yourself credit that you are in tune with your health. If a diagnosis or treatment that a professional suggests doesn’t seem to line up, you don’t have to take it. And you shouldn’t be afraid to get a second opinion. Take the onus upon yourself to do some digging and find what solutions work best for you.

6. A therapist cannot help those who do not want to be helped.

Picture this. Your therapist offers you a life-changing perspective that you have never considered before. Your eyes widen. The gates to heaven have opened. You have just been promoted from mere mortal to Wayne Dyer protege.

You, gentle patient, now hold the answers to your life! But you go home, slip back into the comfort of old habits and realize that everything is the same.

That is because the change your therapist promised will only come into effect if you actually implement their ground-breaking advice into your daily routine. Self-awareness isn’t enough. You have to take responsibility to make real and informed choices moving forward, as hard and as scary as that may be.

7. Find other outlets.

Talk-therapy is an excellent resource. But it’s not the only one. In addition to your personal experiences, your mental health can be largely influenced by lifestyle factors. You may see improvements in your mental health by simply making changes to your daily routines. Start with small changes to your eating, sleeping and exercise habits, and pay attention to what kind of impact they have on your physical and mental health.

If you are a student, most University campuses provide healthy meal options and gym fees are often included in your tuition.

Some people even turn to the arts, channelling their emotions through music, dance or even journalling. These activities can be an excellent release of stress and anxiety.

8. Read. Read a lot.

A lot of the advice I thought to be “ground-breaking” I found within the pages of my favourite self-help books. I lightly underline the scenarios that sound relative to my life and circle the author’s advice.

Another trick I find helpful is to borrow self-help books from friends and family.

As I skim through, I pay attention to the things other people have underlined and ask myself if that would be what I would have underlined. Seeing other people’s takeaways can offer a different perspective or approach to a situation, similar to what a therapist would do.

For $20.99 on Heather’s Picks, you can work on solutions on your own while you await your one-hour weekly therapy appointments.

9. Think critically before filling a prescription.

Medication may be right for you, depending on your particular situation. For many people, it can alleviate chemical imbalances in the brain, helping them to function more comfortably in their day-to-day life. Some doctors may prescribe medication to target the physical symptoms people experience as a result of mental distress including back pains, dizziness, fatigue etc.

In cases where mental health professionals make money on the drugs they prescribe, they may have an incentive to prescribe instead of investing time into treatments  like talk-therapy.

Depending on your mental health conditions, medication might be your best answer. For many, talk-therapy can unravel underlying factors that have been causing mental anguish and lead to a sustainable sense of happiness. In either case, your therapist should treat your questions and concerns as a normal part of the process.

10. Seeking therapy does not mean that you are weak or damaged.

The most important thing to know is that your health is your longest commitment. You cannot be good to your friends or family if you don’t commit to taking care of yourself first. The earlier you get a grip on your health, the easier it is to balance your responsibilities.

If you feel that you need to speak to a mental health professional, whatever the reasons might be, you are not unique. Many people seek professional help, whether they advertise it or not. You should never feel ashamed for wanting to better yourself.

*Opinions expressed are those of the author, and not necessarily those of Student Life Network or their partners.
Samantha Moss

Samantha Moss

Sam is SLN's resident Fashion editor and blogger. She also finds time to be a full-time student at McMaster University. Somehow.