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Should you see a therapist? Ask yourself these 7 questions

COVID-19 has tested us in many ways. Here’s how to determine if talking with a professional might help.
 Video and telephone appointments are making therapy options more available than ever before.
Video and telephone appointments are making therapy options more available than ever before.d3sign / Getty Images

More than two in five Americans reported experiencing at least one symptom of a mental or behavioral health condition since the arrival of COVID-19, according to an August Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) report. There’s little doubt that a lot of people are struggling to cope right now.

And it's not hard to see why. People are facing a lot of challenges: anxiety about getting sick, losing loved ones, grief over lost experiences, social unrest, unemployment, hunger and so much more, said Dr. Ken Duckworth, medical director of the National Alliance on Mental Illness. “What we have is a full-blown mental health pandemic as well.”

A therapist can help you stay emotionally and mentally well, whether you’re dealing with an illness, the everyday wear and tear our bodies and minds encounter, or the stress of living through a global pandemic, added Dr. Vaile Wright, senior director for health care innovation at the American Psychological Association.

“No one is immune to the stress of this right now,” Wright said. Even if you consider yourself a “lucky one” who doesn’t have it as bad as someone else you know, it’s important to not downplay how challenging it is to deal with something this unprecedented for this length of time. All of our lives have been disrupted, she said.

Here are the questions Duckworth, Wright and others suggested considering to decide if seeing a mental health professional might be helpful for you.

Why and when should I see a therapist?

We recommend people seek out therapy if whatever they’re dealing with is interfering significantly with their day-to-day, Wright said. Signs include if whatever you’re dealing with is: interfering with your ability to go to work or be productive at work; interfering with your family life; changing your eating habits; or stopping you from sleeping or bathing. The impetus to seek help does not need to be a major problem or crisis.

A lot of people are a lot worse off than me. Is what I’m struggling with significant enough to get help for?

A lot of people seek out therapy to help get through significant life changes that are interfering with quality of life, but wouldn’t necessarily be a clinically diagnosable mental disorder — like a divorce, losing a job, the death of someone in our family, a breakup or coping with the big- and small-scale changes that came with COVID-19, Wright said.

It’s not really a black and white, I-have-a-problem-so-I-should-get-help or an I’m-fine-so-I-don’t-need-help issue. “It’s okay to acknowledge that some things in your life are going really well, but something else is really challenging and you may need help with it,” Wright said.

The sooner you seek help (or start to address) something that’s bothering you, generally the better, added Dr. Amitha S. Mushyam, a family medicine physician at Northwestern Medicine McHenry Hospital. A lot of times people try to cope on their own and don’t recognize the severity of their symptoms — and how much talking with a professional might help, Mushyam said.

But my friends and family help me cope with life’s stressors, isn’t that enough?

Strong relationships with friends and family are important for coping with life’s day-to-day stressors. But relationships with our friends and family are meant to be reciprocal, Wright said. And sometimes whatever we’re going through can really burden those relationships because it puts too much pressure on our friends and family — and can ultimately damage those relationships if the strain is too much.

Not to mention nearly everyone’s in-person social lives and human interactions and connection have been limited in some way during the pandemic, Duckworth added.

Your therapist’s role is different. He or she is there to focus on you and what you’re going through and dealing with and has training to help you better understand how to cope, Wright said. He or she can be honest with you without fear of hurting a friendship.

If I try it out, what am I getting myself into?

You’re not signing your life away just because you make an appointment with a therapist. Some people are looking for a long-term relationship when it comes to therapy. For others, one to three sessions of therapy can really help, Duckworth explained. Video and telephone appointments are making therapy options more available than ever before, too.

Can I afford therapy?

If you have insurance, your providers are required to cover mental health services comparable to how they cover physical health services, thanks to the Mental Health Parity and Addiction Equity Act. Out-of-pocket expenses and which providers are covered will depend on your insurance company and specific policy.

Other options for finding affordable mental health care include seeking help through community mental health care centers (check your local government website for services in your area), training institutions, and providers who offer a sliding pay scale based on your income.

Psychologist, psychiatrist, social worker, life coach — how do I know who’s right for me?

Psychiatrists are licensed MDs who generally focus on prescribing medications to help with mental health problems, while psychologists usually focus more on talk and behavioral therapies (like cognitive behavioral therapy and other types of psychotherapy) and are not licensed to prescribe medications. Licensed counselors and social workers also tend to focus on talk therapy. (Mental Health America has a helpful online factsheet that describes various types of providers and the services they may offer.)

Different providers have different sets of expertise. Ask providers if they can help with the issues you’re dealing with. Every provider has a unique personality, too, that may or may not suit you, Duckworth said. It’s okay to tell your therapist he or she isn’t a good match.

So how do I go about finding someone?

People in your life whom you trust can be really helpful in pointing you in the right direction or recommending providers they’ve worked with, Duckworth said. Or start with your primary care provider. Who do they recommend? Which of those providers are convenient and take your insurance? Here are some more tips for finding a therapist that works for you.