Asking for help
As children, we look to others as we learn and understand the world around us. The people in our lives help us navigate things we come across that are new and often hard to make sense of, from learning to tieing our shoelaces to first fall outs with best friends. When we get stuck with something, we ask our parents, guardians or teachers for help. It is something we are encouraged to do in life from an early age, so why do people find asking for help so difficult?
So many things can influence our views on asking for help, and some of the most common reasons are rooted in our social identity and sense of self.
Fear is a powerful driver when it comes to thoughts and behaviours and asking for help is no exception. Often times asking for help is assumed to be a sign of weakness or failure when in reality it demonstrates great self-awareness and strength. Being strong enough to ask for help -whether you are a new parent in need of some shut-eye, a student struggling to understand course material or simply someone who is not tall enough to reach the top shelf- requires a level of self-awareness to identify what you need.
This sounds simple but figuring out what we need is not always easy. Having a good understanding of your needs is a key part of asking for help. Knowing specifically what we could use a helping hand with, makes it easier for those around us to understand how we feel and also to offer the support we need.
Independence and Identity
Asking for help can sometimes feel like you are relying on others, rather than being capable of doing things alone. These thoughts can lead to feelings of low self-worth and hopelessness and can threaten our sense of independence and identity. However, it is important to remember that everyone needs help sometimes and that no one can do everything alone. Getting support to achieve our goals, or even just to get through a tough day, doesn’t make you any less independent. In asking for help, you are taking control of your situation and how it is handled.
Why asking for help is important
Asking for help is important because it is one of the first steps we can take to truly accept ourselves. Acknowledging our limits and understanding our imperfections allows us to grow. Brené Brown, who is based at the University of Texas, carried out research in vulnerability, and her work found that being vulnerable is a key part of self-acceptance and knowing our worth.
So we can help others
“When you cannot ask for help without self-judgement, you are never really offering help without judgement”
Another important part of being able to reach out to others is that we can create an environment where we are able to help others. Seeking help and being able to offer it, with empathy and compassion, provides a network of support for and between the people in your life. But first we need to treat ourselves with that same compassion; if we are able to accept ourselves then we can begin to offer unconditional and non-judgemental support to others.
You are not alone
The saying goes ‘a problem shared is a problem halved’ and in asking for help there is definitely truth in that.
Sharing a problem or issue with someone you trust can really lighten the load of working through a problem on your own. Opening up in this way can also let someone know that you are willing to listen when they ask for help. Often when we share problems we realise that many others have similar experiences, feelings and needs with us, which can make us feel less alone.
It can be daunting to ask for help, and even if you have decided that it is the right thing for you to do, knowing where to start can be tricky. Depending on what kind of help you are looking for there may be a different starting point, but there is no shortage of people who are willing to help and want to help.
Friends and family are a big part of our support network and can be a good place to start. Talking to someone you trust and asking for support might feel more comfortable if it is someone you know well.
There are also community groups and charity organisations that can offer a multitude of resources that can help, for example, local meet-ups, legal advice, and helplines for people experiencing suicidal thoughts or loneliness. Community groups normally post information on local notice boards in public spaces, and of course, most of these organisations and information can be found easily online.
Talking to your GP is also a great way to ask for help if you are struggling with physical or mental health problems. Your GP is there to listen and advise you in a confidential setting and can help you get the treatment and support you need.
Whichever way works best for you, the most important thing to remember is that asking for help is not a weakness, it is a strength. No one gets through everything alone, and it’s ok to get a little help in making sure your needs are met.
MEN AND MENTAL HEALTH
The developments in our understanding of mental health are evident from news articles and striking statistics of depression and suicide in our society. These statistics may shock us, they may even call us into action to develop awareness, understanding and interventions to help improve services that those suffering from mental health issues face. However, as much as these efforts are vital and impactful, populations within our society are still left behind when it comes to mental health care. For me, the stand out group is men.
As a counselling psychologist in training and as a man, I have a developing understanding of the dichotomy of in-depth emotional understanding and masculinity. It can be hard, it can be volatile at times, but it must be understood if we are to tackle the growing issues of men’s mental health. In my own opinion, it is this understanding of what it means to be a man, masculinity and the stigma surrounding men and seeking therapeutic help that are the most prominent barriers to understanding men’s mental health better and developing treatment that is both applicable to men and effective in outcomes.
WHERE I FEEL WE ARE NOW
Mental health fascinates me. Largely due to the number of people it effects and the lack of a full understanding we possess regarding it. In part, I feel this lack of understanding stems from the stigma that surrounds mental health and men’s mental health primarily. Seeking therapeutic assistance or admitting you experience mental health difficulties still holds with it perceptions of weakness and inabilities to cope.
On the contrary, I feel that reaching out for such services and confronting mental health issues is one of the strongest and bravest steps a person can make, however out society chooses to view it differently. The fact that men are more likely to suffer from mental health issues and much less likely to seek help than women should call us into action. We lack an understanding of the subjectivity of mental health. Depression may affect someone in different ways than others, it may be sparked by a different set of circumstance. With this subjectivity comes a lack of understanding of how mental health affects people. I can think of no other group where mental health has a lack of understanding or is stigmatised more than men’s mental health.
So far, our developing research and understanding of men’s mental health stem from our understanding of mental health in general. In order to enhance the understanding of men’s mental health, we need to understand the two entities, mental health and men. The issue is so advance that as I write now as a 27-year-old man, over the next 10 years of my life, I am most likely to die from suicide than anything else. This fact shocks me, it leads me to think of my own mental health, it opens up considerations of the support I may receive if and when I potentially experience advanced mental health challenges. Perhaps my fear stems from the fact that I know I could very well experience such difficulties in time, combined with my knowledge of a system that is failing so many men year on year due to a lack of appreciation, research and understanding.
Our success in challenging these issues stem not only in a development of mental health understanding but primarily in masculinity and what it means to be a man. With expansion in this understanding, we will hopefully come to a deeper appreciation of the mental and emotional challenges men face, how they deal with these challenges, what services would be best to provide them and how best to assist them accessing these services. For too long our approach to mental health treatment has been reactive, it’s time to be anticipatory and work from the ground up to not only treat poor mental health in men but develop and help facilitate good mental health.
MY OWN EXPERIENCES
When conducting my research, I am reminded of the concept of the ‘wounded healer’. Of all the topics in therapy and psychology that lack research, why does my passion lie with men and their mental health? As an only child, raised primarily by my single mother, I think back to my childhood and the male role models that were around me. I had a relationship with my father that remains today, but it was inconsistent.
My passion lies in counselling and therapy and how this can facilitate and assist men through mental health challenges in their lives. I feel my work can only go so far if the stigmatised foundation of men’s mental health is not challenged first. In the coming years, I aim to conduct a systematic analysis of studies conducted in men’s mental health and later a thematic analysis on establishing the stigma of stereotypical masculinity and how it affects the perceptions and treatment of men’s mental health.
I first went into therapy when I was 14 years old. I had been self-harming; my mum found out and she took me to the GP who referred me to the local CAMHS. There I saw a Psychotherapist for a year but whilst seeing her for self-harm, I developed anorexia and subsequently got referred to the eating disorder service. I saw a Clinical Psychologist who offered CBT and alongside this, I also had family therapy with my parents. Eventually, after reaching rock bottom, things improved and I began to recover. However, when it came to my 18th birthday the ‘not so smooth’ transition from CAMHS to adult services left me falling through the net and I was left feeling alone and rejected at a time I very much still needed that support.
Over the years, and various moves, I continued in and out of the different mental health services and private therapy. Over the last 13 years, I have definitely seen my fair share of mental health professionals from counsellors to Psychiatrists. This, coupled with the fact I have a degree in Psychology, taught me how therapy worked; especially CBT. I learnt to give them exactly what they wanted to hear. I answered all their questionnaires and did all the homework like the perfect service user and when they discharged me, a few months down the line I was back to square one. Whenever I presented to my GP with various degrees of anxiety and depression, they would either increase my tablets or refer me to yet another 6 sessions of CBT. I learnt two things: CBT doesn’t work for everyone and GP’s hand out anti-depressants like they are sweets.
I have always struggled to talk about my feelings or to bring up anything sensitive that I couldn’t bring myself to say but so needed to. In adult services, no one really bothered to ask. CBT focused on changing negative thought patterns and the therapist would get me to do tasks like applying for that job I wanted but thought I might not get. Any mindfulness techniques left me feeling more anxious than before because I was suddenly noticing and feeling emotions I had pushed away for so long. And then they told me that I was too closed off and not willing to open up, to try harder or come back when I’m willing to emotionally bare all.
Counselling and trauma-informed care
Up until a few months ago, I was seeking help from an alcohol service to tackle my drinking. Over the year or so that I was there I had been passed around a few different key workers and every time I saw them it felt rushed and I felt like a burden. They even gave me anti-craving medication which I took for a few weeks then stopped. Again, like the perfect service user, I told them I had cut down on my alcohol intake and it was no longer a problem. I would leave the appointment feeling worse, often going straight to the shop to buy alcohol. Then I was passed onto a different key worker for my remaining time in the service and for the first time it felt like I was being listened to. I stopped lying and I started to open up more because I felt like I somehow mattered. He taught me what compassion really was and I realised that it was something I lacked in my life; I needed to learn how to be kind to myself and I needed the space to explore my thoughts and feelings and to discover who I am. And so I found counselling.
I’ve had a few sessions now with a counsellor and some days it’s harder to open up than others but I’m getting there. It can be a struggle to be ‘me’ when for so long I have given therapists what they want; the perfect, compliant patient all neatly boxed off. I’ve been able to talk about things I haven’t ever spoken about and it’s completed person-centred. I can talk as much or as little about anything I want to. It’s taught me to not over-analyse everything. That sometimes things just happen beyond our control and you just have to ride the wave and talk through the feelings that brings up. It’s not structured, there’s no right or wrong answers, no homework and no questionnaires to ace. She understands that my self-destructive behaviour is, and has been, a reaction to certain events in my life or things that have happened to me. I’m no longer seen as a set of symptoms or, as my GP once called me when I told him I felt suicidal, ‘highly strung.’ For the first time, I feel validated and understood.
If you are seeking therapy then know that it is different for everyone, what works for one doesn’t always work for another. It’s important to find what’s right for you at that time. But if something doesn’t feel right then don’t be afraid to try something else or to ask for a different therapist. Often, the relationship you have with your therapist can have a greater impact than the therapy itself. When you do find what works for you then stick with it. It can be incredibly difficult but so worth it. It’s not a magic cure, you do have to put work into it and talking about unpleasant things can be extremely difficult. But a good therapist will guide you through it and offer a safe space to explore your feelings. Always keep yourself safe and practice self-care. Do things that you enjoy. Treat yourself after every therapy session, whether that’s retail therapy, gaming, coffee with a friend, a Netflix binge or journaling. I find that a bubble bath, a good book and then a binge of ‘The Blacklist’ in my onesie works wonders for me.