I’ve had substantial experience with counsellors.
Since I started seeking out help for anxiety when I was 17, I’ve been to see upwards of eleven counsellors, psychologists, social workers and psychiatrists. I’m 24 now, and the reason I’ve been through so many is because my experiences have been mixed.
I’ve seen counsellors who invalidated me, who disrespected me, who made me feel worse. And I’ve seen counsellors who have coached me through some of the most difficult times in my life.
I’ve heard similar stories from friends of mine who had to search for the right counsellor, or who saw one or two and then gave up. I don’t know what the solution is. All of us deserve a professional’s advice when we’re in need, and we deserve it from someone we feel we can trust and respect. Why is this a privilege in our society instead of a human right?
When I was seventeen, I told my sister I was depressed. She helped me book a counselling appointment with a social worker and drove me there. I remember being more excited than nervous - this feeling of relief that I was finally getting the help I’d needed for a long time.
This counsellor, who’s name I can’t even remember now, was helpful, in some ways. She encouraged communication with my mom and guided me in learning about who I innately was. But, as would become a pattern for me, she didn’t realize how sick I was.
I’m what they call “high-functioning.” My grades were high, I had some friends in school, and I had a part-time job. Too many people assume this means you’re okay, even when you’re trying to ask for help.
I had to cancel an appointment one day, and after that, I couldn’t get back in contact with her. I called her office several times and left messages, but I never heard back.
Later that year, I told my mom I was suicidal. She made me a doctor’s appointment. On medication, I started coping better. But living in a small town, I didn’t have access to any other resources. So that was that.
In my twenties, I started a search for another counsellor. I saw counsellors through my university, I saved up money and paid for sessions with therapists I thought were promising, and I was referred to psychiatrists with year-long waiting lists.
Over and over again, I felt invalidated. I felt like I wasn’t being taken seriously. One counsellor looked at me at the end of our first session and said, “Oh, I’m sure we’ll only need to book one more session and then we’ll be done with you.” Another implied that panic attacks were easy to get over. A third told me that my intrusive thoughts, related to my dissociative disorder, occurred because I had “too much time on my hands.” And yet another told me that I couldn’t be bisexual if I had never dated a man.
Over and over again, I left sessions feeling like I wasn’t being taken seriously, like my identities weren’t being respected, and like the help I needed just wasn’t out there.
Amidst these negative experiences, I have had positive ones as well. In my third year of university, my mental health took a turn for the worse, and I developed depersonalization-derealization disorder, partly as a result of frequent intense panic attacks. I was seeing my third counsellor through a university at this time, and I sometimes wonder if I would have survived this breakdown without her. She was seeing me multiple times a week. And when I had to drop out of school and no longer qualified for student health services, she started seeing me during her lunch breaks. She wrote me referral letters, called to check up on me, and made sure that I was safe with access to the resources I needed before she stopped seeing me. She took me seriously from the beginning. The impact this had on me was huge, and it gave me so much hope for the future of my mental health journey.
After developing a dissociative disorder, resources became even scarcer than before. There is limited knowledge on my particular disorder, and many counsellors, doctors, and psychiatrists were reluctant to treat me at all.
I was tossed around between too many professionals. One of my counsellors told me that nobody would be able to help me with dissociation. That where I was at was “as good as it gets.” That looking for someone else was a waste of time and money. She rushed me out of therapy, but not before I demanded to be referred to another psychologist.
And this is where I am now. My new counsellor is incredible. She takes my mental health seriously. She validates my emotions. She is immensely talented at actively listening to the things I say and helping me uncover past trauma. She encourages me and motivates me every session. And most importantly, she creates an environment where communication is easy - if she says something that bothers me, if she uses the wrong pronouns, or if we are working on something I don’t feel is helping, I feel comfortable telling her, and confident that she will make changes to make our time together more fulfilling.
Some people are meant to be counsellors - they’re compassionate, empathic and intuitive, and they enjoy doing what they’re doing. Others just aren’t. Seeing the counsellor I have now, I feel lucky that I had the energy to persist. I know others don’t.
It’s unfortunate and unfair that us, the people who are struggling, are left to maneuver our way through this unknown sea. Too often, I have felt like I needed to fight for mental health resources. And this is unacceptable.
But even with the experiences I’ve had, I’m thankful. Many counsellors have failed me, but it has been worth it for the ones that have saved me. I truly hope that others who are suffering - the people who are reading this, and subscribers to Courage Box, actively choose to not give up until they find the resources that help.
Your mental health is worth the effort.
To send you off, here are five tips for finding a good counsellor, based on my own experiences:
1. Be persistent. Take your time and don’t give up. Remember that counsellors are people, and that some are good at their jobs while others are not.
2. Learn about your counsellor, if you can. If you’re able to choose your counsellor (i.e. if you’re seeking one out instead of being referred, or if you can afford to pay for one), look into their education, their experience, and their specialties. At the same time, remember that your relationship with them is more important than their past.
3. Think about who you would be more comfortable talking to based on their intersecting identities - think about gender, age, race, ethnicity, sexuality, etc.
4. Ask for recommendations, whether it’s friends or family or reviews online.
5. Communicate with your counsellor. This is a two-way relationship - if your counsellor does something that makes you uncomfortable, or if they’re trying to work with you on something that you don’t feel is helping, make sure you bring it up. A good counsellor will take your feedback, admit any mistakes, and make changes to improve your relationship.
[Photo by nikko macaspac on Unsplash]