Common Barriers to Seeking Counseling

Most of us remember our reactions when, as kids, we found out it was time to visit the dentist. If you were like me, you pretty much went kicking and screaming the entire way. This resistance, although understandable (especially if you had the work I had done), was based on a lot of misinformation. Going to the dentist hurt, it was scary and never ended with a lollipop (as a visit to the doctor sometimes did). But whatever pain we felt in the dentist chair was minor compared to the pain we would have felt if our teeth had not been properly maintained by a trained professional.

For many, seeking the services of a professional counselor is a lot like going to the dentist—but worse. Like the dentist, much of our resistance to going to a therapist is based on misunderstandings. If these were cleared up, I’m convinced that a much larger portion of our society would get some basic counseling help … and be healthier for it.

Let’s examine some of the common barriers that keep people from seeking counseling.

One of the most common barriers to counseling is the denial of the existence of a problem, or at least a problem bad enough to seek professional help. There is something stoic and resilient about humans; we want to prove ourselves, we want to overcome. We can admire people for this hardy approach to life, but we must also mourn for them at times. Refusing to come to terms with an obvious problem in our life is not laudable, it is foolhardy.

Have you ever looked at your car manual? There are often two maintenance schedules: One for normal conditions and one for harsh conditions. The schedule designed for cars operating in harsh conditions involves more frequent tune-ups, oil changes, and preventative diagnostic exams. Most people follow these schedules for their autos faithfully; why do we refuse to maintain our personal health?

One of the most common misconceptions among all people regarding mental health is that everybody else has it together. They all look fine, right? So we adopt the same approach. We make sure our outside persona gives the appearance that we are fine.

The greater probability is that almost everyone you see is undergoing some sort of internal or external struggle. Some are weighed down by physical illness, others struggle with circumstances they cannot control, such as joblessness or the death of a close friend; many walk around filled with shame, fear, doubt, guilt, anger, hopelessness, or a host of other emotional and mental issues. As Christian educator Christopher West said, it’s like we are all driving around town with flat tires. Since everyone else is also driving around on flat tires, we think it is normal.

What we fail to realize is that we were not intended to be driving around on our rims, sparks flying and rubber shredding. If we got a flat tire on our car, few of us would continue driving on it. We would immediately stop and change the tire before continuing on our way.

When it comes to our emotional and mental health, many of us have been driving on our rims for a long time. We are convinced that because our vehicle is still moving forward, we are just fine. But, this is not how we were designed to operate.

Some of the healthiest people I have ever met are recovering addicts. These folks have no pretensions and no illusions. They know they have been wounded through their own actions and the actions of others. They differ from others in that they took that knowledge of their woundedness and used it to transform their lives. It wasn’t easy, but they are now the people more likely to be devoted to helping and serving others.

The real first step in getting healthy, whether from physical, mental, or emotional wounds, is to admit that something isn’t right. A visit to a professional therapist is like a diagnostic exam. They are trained to help you discover what has gone wrong; together you decide what kind of treatment you may or may not need.

Social stigma
Although this is decreasing, a stigma is still attached to seeing a counselor. There is an impression—especially among those who have never tried counseling—that only people who are really sick or mentally ill would need to see a therapist.

The good news is that our society is beginning to see the value of professional counseling. More and more people are using the services of licensed therapists for a variety of reasons, many of them involving life experiences common to all of us. A counselor can help a college student learn to manage stress, or to determine if the stress is being caused by something deeper than a heavy course load. Some benefit from counseling as they work through the grieving process due to divorce or the death of a loved one. Others seek counseling for depression and are able to alleviate it before chemical imbalances occur in the brain.

For others, however, counseling may be the very thing that pulls them away from serious mental illness or addiction. The first step in most 12-step programs is to admit that one is powerless over the addiction. This means that on their own power, they are unable to stop their errant behavior. One of the primary assistants in the addict’s community of caregivers is a trained professional who can help unlock the deeper reasons why the individual is seeking solace in his addiction.

Getting healthy is the most important goal for a person, whether the problem is major or minor. We cannot be concerned about the unhealthy viewpoint of individuals in society who still maintain that counseling is only for a certain category of people. As one counselor said, “Get over it and get help.”

Religious stigma
Just as common as social stigma, there is a strain of thought among Christians that counseling is somehow contrary to God’s Word, and therefore should be avoided. They hold the Bible up and insist that everything we need for life is contained within. Although this is a proper spiritual approach, it can definitely be misapplied.

God designed us as embodied persons. He endowed us with a body, mind, and spirit. The Bible doesn’t contain up-to-date medical manuals, but few Christians would refuse a doctor’s treatment because they couldn’t locate the proper chapter and verse authorizing them to do so. As psychologist Dr. James Dobson has said, the task of a Christian psychologist is not fundamentally different than that of any Christian. He needs to exercise discernment by filtering everything through the screen of God’s Word. In this way, a Christian approach to psychotherapy would reject methods and theories that contradicted God’s revealed truth.

Mental and physical health are similar in this regard. As our medical knowledge progresses, we understand more clearly just how intricate and wondrous God’s design is. Unlocking the mysteries of the mind does not replace our faith in Christ, it illuminates it.

Secular counseling can miss the vital spiritual link to our mental and emotional health, but trained Christian counselors can offer an integrated approach that includes body (behaviors), mind (thoughts and emotions), and spirit (our relationship with God).

Of all the reasons to avoid counseling, this is the most understandable. Many of the problems that lead to counseling are caused by painful experiences that a person often has no interest in reliving. Some of these include:

  • Death
  • Divorce
  • Sexual abuse (childhood, rape, etc.)
  • Physical abuse
  • Addiction (for the addict or spouse)
  • Major trauma or calamity

Just the thought of diving into those painful memories is enough to keep many people from seeking help throughout their lives. Even as we acknowledge the reality of this pain, we can also offer encouragement to move forward.

Consider a gunshot wound. The bullet hits its target without warning, completely upending a person’s world. The initial reaction is shock, pain, and fear. All efforts are centered on survival. Although the bullet did not kill its target, it caused major damage. Perhaps the bleeding was stopped and the entrance wound managed to heal over. Is this person healed at this point? No. The internal damage has never been properly treated and the bullet still moves around inside, causing further damage and bleeding. If left untreated forever, the internal wound could eventually kill the person.

Emotional wounds operate in much the same way. Many of them occur instantly, such as with the death of a loved one or the discovery of marital infidelity. Pain, shock, and fear immediately set in and our efforts are bent on simply surviving another day. Yet, deep within us, the internal wound is still open, bleeding, and dangerous.

Our fear is based on the pain of reopening the entrance wound, but this focus keeps us from seeing how destructive and dangerous the internal wound is. Reopening the wound will be painful for some as they begin counseling, as will finding and extracting the bullet that caused the wound. Yet, without getting to the source of our pain, we will never fully heal. We will always carry the weight of our original wound with us, and we will notice the bleeding from time to time as the wound tells us that it still isn’t healed, that it is still harming our lives.

Cost is a common barrier for the practically minded. For those with limited incomes, it is not unreasonable to consider the price tag for something that seems less important than rent, food, or clothing. Yet, for those who can afford counseling, there is an all-too-common practice of bargain hunting for professional therapy. Would we bargain hunt for heart surgeons or parachute manufacturers? Why, then, would we cut corners when it comes to our mental and emotional well-being?

I believe some of this attitude comes from our ability to cope with problems in our lives. To use our earlier analogy, we have become accustomed to driving on flat tires. If we can just fix one tire, we’ll still be better off, right?

Unfortunately, with professional counseling, as with many aspects of life, you often only get what you pay for. Choosing the right counselor is as important in many ways as choosing the right mate. The choice can positively or negatively affect the rest of your life. This is not the time to pinch pennies.

If you are going to bargain hunt, consider first the total cost of your decision, not just the cost of professional counseling. How much extra each week do you spend on food, cigarettes, or alcohol to help calm your nerves, reduce stress, or medicate your internal pain? Have your problems led you to drop out of school, lose a job, or, worse yet, your family? How much will your problem cost or hurt you over the course of your life?

If we only look at the economic arguments, it still makes better financial sense to find the best counselor regardless of cost. Many company health plans will pay a portion of the counseling fees, even if the therapist is out of the network. For those who need counseling but do not have health plans, many good Christian counselors are willing to write off a portion of their fee or to lower it for poorer individuals.

Another option is to contact a local evangelical church, some of which offer pastoral counseling or support group counseling at low or no cost. There are usually solutions to every potential problem. Remember, too, that God is the Great Physician and desires you to be well. Lift up your concerns in prayer and ask Him to lead you to the right person and to provide the means.

Bad experiences
While less common than the other barriers, having a previous bad experience with a therapist can be one of the hardest to overcome. A person with a prior experience that has not helped, not been focused, or has led to counseling abuse (a rare, but real occurrence), is unlikely to ever return. This negative experience compounds the initial trauma or situation that led the person to seek help, and may actually serve as a prison door locking the individual into his internal pain for the rest of his life.

If you find yourself in this situation, I encourage you to try again. Whatever past experience you may have had, there are steps you can take to ensure it doesn’t happen again.

1. Call Focus on the Family’s Counseling Department at (719) 531-3400 x 2700 to get a referral to a local Christian therapist. All professionals on our referral list have gone through an extensive screening process. Our counselors can give you the name of someone in your area, but, more importantly, they can provide support and encouragement for you to overcome your prior experience. (This service comes at no cost to you.)

2. If your past experience involved unethical conduct by the therapist, you may consider bringing ethics charges against him or her. Ethical misconduct can include inappropriate sexual behavior, breech of confidentiality, unless required by law, or fraudulent billing practices. If you were harmed, there is a chance others were as well. Speaking out can prevent future abuse from occurring. If you suspect a therapist of ethics violations, call Focus on the Family and ask to speak with a counselor who can help you through the process.

A better tomorrow
There are real barriers to seeking professional help, but none of them are so large or insurmountable that you should be denied a healthier, happier future. If one or more of these barriers has kept you from getting counseling, please consider calling the Counseling Department at Focus on the Family at (719) 531-3400 weekdays 9:00 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. (MST) to help you move forward with your life.

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