Self-Help vs. Therapy: How to Choose
It’s not uncommon to toss around the idea of counselling for months before seeking help. In fact, one of the critical questions that people often have is “Do I need to see a counsellor or can I handle this myself?” Many counsellors might reply to such questions with statements like:
“There is no shame in seeking counselling.”
“It’s normal to ask for help.”
“It takes a lot of strength to reach out to a counsellor.”
While I agree with all of these statements, we counsellors are biased. Most of us went into this profession because we think that counselling can be a powerful medium for helping others. And many of us have been, and continue to be counselling clients ourselves.
Let’s look at some of the reasons why you might choose self-help, counselling, or a combination of both. Of course, your reasons might be different from what I come up with here, but let’s get started!
Self help is not confined to the arena of counselling (I taught myself to knit on YouTube!) but for the sake of this article, I’m focusing on therapy.
Some of the ways that we self-help our mental health include, but are not limited to:
- Reading books and articles
- Online research
- Going to the library
- Listening to podcasts
- Social media
- Courses – formal, informal
- Bicycle rides
- Sports – solo, group
- Breathing exercises
- Somatic (body based): yoga, massage therapy, floats etc.
- Strength training
- Other forms of movement (from vigorous to slow) – dance, tai chi etc.
- Support groups
- Psychoeducation groups
- Self-paced therapy workbooks
- Opening up emotionally to friends or family members
- Shared activities with friends, family or other social connections
- Creating community (small and large- groups, neighbourhoods, larger scale initiatives)
- Attending a temple, church, synagogue, mosque or other faith group
- Mediation or prayer
- Time in nature
- Attending retreats
- Engaging in special interests or hobbies
- Learning new skills
- Engaging in leisure pursuits
There are many reasons why such self-help choices may feel like the best strategy at the moment. Reasons include but are not limited to:
- A desire to see how far one can get on one’s own
- Wanting to learn more about an issue we’re struggling with before consulting a professional
- A desire to process more internally before consulting a professional
- Our problems do not seem pressing
- We don’t feel ready for counselling at this time
- It’s hard to ask for professional help.Professional therapy feels too stigmatizing
- We’ve had a negative previous experience in counselling
- We haven’t found a counsellor or are waiting to see one
- There are no counselling resources available in the community
- We don’t have the money or benefits to access counselling at this time
- A philosophical opposition to counselling
- Self-help may offer a “try before you buy”—allowing people to get a sense of therapy without committing to something more formalized
Professional Mental Health Care
Professional mental health care can take a number of different forms. Be sure, though, to ensure that your therapist is well trained and registered with a professional body. Remember: counselling is not regulated in British Columbia!
But it’s a little more than that! I’ve written dozens of articles about counselling because there are so many aspects to it: the importance of the therapeutic fit, the wide variety of therapies available (not all counsellors provide all therapies) and the issues themselves (not all therapists help with all issues) and our individual needs as clients.
Couples and Family Counselling
Like with 1:1 counselling, there is tons of variation in methods used, variety of therapists who do the work and clients’ needs in this area.
Not as widely offered privately (although these groups can be found) but more widely adopted by local health authorities who offer public mental health services (usually to save money).
Often for issues like substance use, eating disorders or mental health care. Participation may be voluntary (usually private treatment centres) or in some cases involuntary (for example, people committed to the hospital under the BC Mental Health Act).
Medication / Pharmacotherapy
Sometimes prescribed by a physician or nurse practitioner in combination with the fact that someone is also attending therapy, or sometimes prescribed alone.
There are a number of reasons why folks may choose professional mental health options over self-help. Reasons include but are not limited to:
- A plateauing effect from self-help
- Seeking a personalized, customized counselling experience
- A desire to feel the support of a dedicated mental health professional in your corner
- To reduce guilt related to excessive talking about one’s problems to friends, by seeing a paid professional instead
- To reduce feelings of isolation
- To decrease overwhelm and collaborate on a plan
- Previous positive experiences in counselling
- Seeking specialized help that goes beyond what can be provided in a self-help context
- A referral from a friend or family member
- Seeking feedback from a neutral third party
- To accelerate personal growth in a particular area
- Workplace benefits fund counselling or able to afford counselling
- To learn new skills
- To enhance personal accountability
- To learn how to open up emotionally
- As part of an overall wellness plan
A Hybrid Approach
Here we may see a combination of professional therapy methods, multimodal self-help strategies or combinations of self-help and professional help options. There are so many combinations! Here are some examples, which are only the tip of the iceberg:
- Counselling + psychotropic medication
- Counselling + exercise
- Individual therapy + group therapy
- Psychotherapy + supplementary readings/workbooks
- Individual counselling + family/couples counselling (different counsellors for each)
- Counselling + journalling
- Nature walks + creative writing
- Psychology coursework + self-reflection exercises
- Running + mindfulness
- Support group + socialization
- Psychoeducation group + residential treatment
- Couples counselling + shared leisure activities
Reasons for a hybrid approach could include:
- Integrating therapy into daily life
- Heightening ones sense of personal agency
- Taking healthy risks while receiving support
- Participating in therapeutic collaboration that includes personal ideas
- Accelerating personal growth
- Accelerating progress in therapy
- Sustaining the benefits of therapy in-between sessions
- Saving money
- As a step-down approach when therapy is concluding
Whatever you choose to do, I encourage you to remember a few principles:
- There is no one right answer and it’s more than ok to look at different options, or combinations.
- Pathways can always be modified. In fact, they should, because needs change over time. Also, making changes along the way reflects your engagement in the process, which is a good thing!
- Similar to the point above, you are not trapped! If you’re receiving counselling that you’re not happy with, speak up with your therapist! How they respond to your concerns will help you determine whether you want to continue with that therapy relationship.
- It’s ok to take breaks! This can include taking a pause from certain self-help activities or taking a break from therapy.
- If you’ve chosen therapy, the overall experience of counselling is not intended to be a like a funeral dirge, or an ode to your “brokenness.” I’m old enough to say that attitudes around counselling and psychotherapy have shifted markedly in my lifetime. Friends, let’s let go of stigma and celebrate the wonderful, human conversations that therapy can yield and counselling as a solid, positive option for your mental health.
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