A university near me is about to open a mental health clinic to serve the needs of students, the community, and train mental health professionals. Sounds great, right? What could be controversial about that? Well, the administrative staff who currently work there are freaking out.
It makes sense: They’ve watched tv. They know about school and college shootings. They’ve internalized how media has connected mental illness and violence. To them, the “mentally ill” are dangerous, and anyone who would seek therapy is a threat. It doesn’t matter that this clinic would screen out and refer the most serious mentally ill before they ever stepped foot through the door. They are scared.
They don’t think about their relative who can’t get out of bed; or their friend’s dad who flies off the handle in a rage over the smallest perceived slight; or their sister who drinks every night after her divorce. They don’t think about the child who gets stomach aches every morning before school, or the college student who can’t sleep from anxiety. The stigma of mental illness and those who seek treatment remains more powerful than the potential help we could all use at various times in our lives. And that’s in part because we don’t understand the anatomy and function of the brain.
Our every thought, feeling, memory, is a physical reality, just as weak muscles after an injury are physical realities. An Olympic athlete needs coaching in order to overcome bad habits and learn good strong skills, and so do our brains. Neurons form pathways, synapses are strengthened, and getting those neurons, I mean, thought patterns and emotional responses, to change, takes effort and support and professional help. No one would laugh or condemn Michael Phelps, one of the most well-known, most successful, most highly decorated Olympic athletes, when he goes back to his coach to prepare for the 2016 Summer Olympics. No, we don’t give that a second thought. We don’t question when a coach suggests a new routine, or shows a new way of holding the tennis racket, or throwing the football or spinning on the ice.
Yet what is therapy, but a coach for our neurons? Yes, we’ve all known bad coaches – I almost throttled my young son’s soccer coach who belittled his team for playing like ” a bunch of girls heading to their violin lesson.” Gah, my blood pressure goes up just remembering it – There’s so much WRONG about that! But I still believe in coaching.
No one thinks she is weak, or lacks will, or is a failure because she couldn’t “do it on her own.” We don’t worry about her being violent, because she has help getting her muscles finely tuned to balance, jump, leap, soar over the ice.
Once we better understand how our brains work, how our thoughts, attitudes, desires, hopes, and dreams are real because of physical realities which can be influenced and changed like other physical aspects of our bodies, then we’ll let go of the stigma of therapy. It’s not so much about bad childhoods, as it is about unlearning what doesn’t work, and learning and practicing new skills. The first time you tried to stay afloat in the water, or teeter on razor-thin ice skating blades, or your first wobbly thrown football (not to mention the help it took to learn your letters and how to add) : It all needs refinement as you grow, as so do our thoughts, and feelings, and worldviews.
I’m sure the university in question will figure it out. (After all, my sister got hired to make sure it will happen!) And hopefully, the staff will realize, in the process, that good therapy can be a godsend. And let’s let go of the judgment and stigma of those who seek help. We’ll all be better off.