Nearly two years into the COVID-19 pandemic, the conversation about mental health is more prevalent than ever. As a society, we are slowly removing the stigma surrounding mental health, including seeking counseling or other forms of therapy.
The National Center for Health Statistics reported that in 2019, 9.5% of adults in the United States received counseling or therapy from a mental health professional. However, according to Mental Health America’s 2022 report, more than half of adults in the United States with a mental illness do not receive treatment, meaning more than 27 million adults in the United States are going untreated. In the same report, Mental Health America found that since 2011, the percentage of adults with a mental illness who report unmet needs for treatment has increased.], reaching about 24.7% in 2019.
This is extremely unfortunate, as people who need treatment are not getting it. We have a ways to go before healthcare related to mental health is largely accessible to everyone who needs it. Even if people in general show a greater willingness to talk about therapy, especially across social media platforms, it is still inaccessible.
Additionally, this increased conversation regarding mental health brings with it negative statements and trends that neither benefit those struggling nor function to reduce the stigma. Particularly, statements like “[Blank] is my therapy” can be especially harmful. For example, there are many T-shirts available for purchase with statements like, “running is my therapy” or “nature is my therapy.” I understand the sentiment in these situations, as these are certainly coping mechanisms. Furthermore, coping mechanisms are important! There is even evidence to suggest that running may help alleviate symptoms of mood and anxiety disorders, and studies suggest that regular runners may experience lower levels of depression and anxiety and greater psychological well-being. Additionally, researchers at the University of Washington have found evidence showing that contact with nature is associated with increases in happiness, positive affect, positive social interactions and well-being, and decreases in mental distress. Thus, these coping mechanisms that relieve stress are clearly beneficial for one’s mental health.
However, they should not be equated to therapy. Implying that exercise or other hobbies and therapy are the same exact thing diminishes the positive impact of professional therapy. You don’t need to have every diagnosis in the DSM-5 to be in therapy (or any for that matter); everyone can benefit from therapy, as it’s beneficial even in one’s daily life to process thoughts, moods and behaviors with a trained, impartial party.
Statements such as “running is my therapy” perpetuate the idea that therapy is for the weak. Even if it is not the intention, claiming that these hobbies are adequate substitutes for therapy implies that those who are in therapy or otherwise need therapy are more “broken” than average. It’s unintentionally saying, “Oh if you were better, [xyz] coping mechanism would be enough for you, and you wouldn’t need more support in the form of therapy.” Even inadvertently suggesting it’s burdensome to seek help from professionals only adds to the stigma.
Moreover, such statements only further the misconception that therapy is the end-all-be-all of mental health. Unfortunately, the reality is that therapy is not the magical cure for mental health challenges. It might not work for everyone, and one’s first (or second, or third) therapist might not be one they work well with. Other treatments such as lifestyle changes may be necessary, in addition to putting in the work while both still in therapy and once out. (If your therapist gives you homework, you need to do it to reap any benefits!)
Finally, as discussed above, there are many barriers blocking access to therapy. Getting better is not as easy as “going to therapy” because it can be difficult to find a therapist, get regular appointments and afford said appointments, even with insurance.
As with most things, the language we use in our everyday lives is important. It has implications beyond the surface level, and while it may seem nitpicky to worry about every unintentional meaning our phrases may have, it is a vital practice. If we want to entirely dismantle the stigmas surrounding mental health and remove the barriers many face in achieving mental health, we need to be careful of the words we use to conduct such conversations.