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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.
/ Source: TODAY

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 the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). 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, lost loved ones, social unrest, unemployment 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 Vaile Wright, Ph.D., 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 if you're debating whether seeing a mental health professional might be helpful for you.

Why and when should I see a therapist?

It's recommended people seek out therapy if whatever they’re dealing with is interfering significantly with their day-to-day life, Wright said — for example if it's changing your eating habits, stopping you from sleeping or bathing, interfering with your ability to go to or be productive at work, or your family life. The impetus to seek help does not need to be a major problem or crisis.

Some common reasons people go to therapy include burnout, when people you love are worried about you, or unhealthy behaviors, for example, excessive drinking, which has risen during the pandemic. But many people also see therapists when they're interested in making a "positive behavior change," psychiatrist Samantha Boardman told TODAY.

"It's almost like ... going to the mind gym. You ... don't only work out because you want to lose weight. You also want to build muscle. Maybe you go and see a therapist because you're interested in building resilience or your emotional flexibility," Boardman added.

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 who don't have a clinically diagnosable mental disorder seek out therapy to help manage significant life changes, like divorce, losing a job, the death of someone in your 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 OK 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. 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.

Your therapist’s role is different. They're there to focus on you and what you’re going through and have training to help you better understand how to cope, Wright said. They 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 make therapy more accessible than ever before, too.

Can I afford therapy?

If you have insurance, most individual and small group plans are required to cover mental health services comparable to how they cover physical health services. 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. Some employers and schools offer therapy to workers and students.

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 OK 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. Just try to avoid seeing the same therapist as someone you're close to so you don't discuss overlapping issues. Or start with your primary care provider. Whom 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.