I want to engage in psychotherapy but…
A teenager with obsessive-compulsive disorder is not allowed to see a psychotherapist because her parents fear that it will affect their reputation. The stress from her OCD causes her to experience heart palpitations and breathing problems.
A young woman on antidepressants knows that psychotherapy would help ease her depression. Yet she refuses to seek help out of fear that it will make her ‘weak.’
A man experiencing anxiety engages in psychotherapy but hides his treatment from his family. He worries about getting ‘caught’ and being told to ‘snap out of it.’
These are not hypothetical situations that I have made up. These are real people that I know personally. Their conditions are real and they suffer just as much as anyone with a physical ailment. In these situations, I find myself wondering why psychotherapy isn’t being used for treatment. It is well known that psychotherapy is as effective as medication for treating a number of mental health conditions. Furthermore, when used in conjunction with medication, patients have improved functional outcomes and quality of life. In light of these findings, what is it that prevents someone from seeking psychotherapy? What barriers need to be addressed?
“I’m afraid that others will find out”
You have a right to privacy and psychotherapists are required to abide by strict confidentiality guidelines. They will not ask you for information that isn’t relevant to your session and at all times, you have the right to choose which information you wish to disclose. They will only release information about you to a third party with your explicit agreement or if the law requires it (in extreme situations, such as homicide, suicide and child abuse). Before you begin, you will receive detailed information on confidentiality and your rights as a patient.
“I can handle my problems on my own”
If you believe that you can take care of your own mental health, then give it a go. However, as with any form of treatment, give yourself a reasonable time limit (for example, 2 months) and on a specified date, go back and assess the success of your approach. Ask yourself questions such as, ‘Have I seen improvement in my mood, functionality, etc? If so, how much (give yourself a percentage for each of these categories)?’ If you aren’t seeing improvement then it’s time to try a different method. If you’re still hesitant about seeing someone, try using a mood tracking app such as Optimism or learn therapy skills on MoodGYM. If you benefit from these resources, chances are you’ll enjoy psychotherapy.
“If I seek help it’ll mean that I’m weak”
Seeking help doesn’t mean you’re weak, it means you are humble enough to realize that you cannot handle all of your problems alone. The Prophet SAW said, “There is no disease that Allah has created except that He also created its remedy (Bukhari).” Sometimes this remedy is easily available to us and sometimes, we need the help of others. Didn’t the Prophet SAW counsel his sahaba with their problems? Didn’t the sahaba counsel each other? Have humility. Recognize when you are in over your head and need help.
“What if the psychotherapist doesn’t understand me?”
This is why it’s essential to support and encourage Muslims in the field of psychotherapy and counselling. Would you rather speak to someone who tells you that its okay to drink alcohol and experiment with boundaries or would you rather speak to someone who uses an approach grounded in both mental health and Islam?
So what can a psychotherapist do for you?
A doctor can’t lower your blood pressure for you. You do it yourself by taking the prescribed medication. Similarly, a psychotherapist can’t ‘fix’ your problems for you. The goal of a psychotherapist is to provide you with the tools to help you help yourself.
There is a common misconception that therapy involves lying on a couch while sharing your life story. This is the Freudian approach to counselling and isn’t common in the field of psychology anymore. Psychotherapists on the other hand practice evidence-based treatment such as cognitive behavioural therapy (changing unhelpful thinking and behaviour) and acceptance and commitment therapy (embracing and accepting circumstances that are beyond your control). Whether or not you want to learn and benefit from these research proven methods however is up to you. Your health is in your own hands.
I challenge you, the reader, to fight back against the stigma of mental health and a take a chance on yourself:
1. If you need help, contact a psychotherapist directly or ask your doctor for a referral.
2. Look for organizations like ISNA Compass that connect Muslims with already existing community resources.
3. To help others – organize an event on mental health at your masjid. Research shows that attending non-threatening but highly informative public workshops is one of the best ways to break down stigma amongst individuals who have previously resisted treatment (1).