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Opinion: Mental health therapy can only go so far

The topic of therapy is one that has become much more prominent in recent years. With mental health being such a prominent problem across New Mexico and the United States, I think it’s important these conversations continue and the topic of receiving professional support is normalized.

Therapy is a helpful, sometimes essential, tool that can be a source of support for people when they need it most. However, it is important to recognize its limitations. (Photo courtesy of Freepik)

I am a strong believer in therapy and its ability to be a positive, sometimes essential, source of support in someone’s life. Therapy can provide an outlet for someone to talk through difficult times, get the things they bottled up off their chest and untangle unhealthy thought patterns. It can also equip people with tools to deal with difficult times, emotions and thoughts outside of therapy.  

While therapy has so many positive benefits, I am also a strong believer in balance. Is it possible to overfocus on our problems to the point that they become worse? This is something I began to ponder after listening to a podcast clip of a conversation between host Joe Rogan and journalist Abigail Shrier. 

In one clip that caught my attention, they discussed how constantly talking and thinking about your problems can make it worse, and that sometimes therapists capitalize on that by treating their patients for longer than needed. I am not saying that I fully agree with that, but it did get me thinking about balance and how even therapy, which is a good thing, has bounds, limitations and extents to where it can become a bad thing.  

People go through all sorts of seasons, and I have seen people close to me in my life go through seasons in which therapy was essential to function. During those times, talking about their pain was freeing and productive in helping them to process the past so they could move forward. I have seen longtime therapy-goers and people close to me outgrow therapy and reach a point where talking about past pain became counterproductive, harmful and it kept them stuck.

“I have seen longtime therapy-goers and people close to me outgrow therapy and reach a point where talking about past pain became counterproductive, harmful and it kept them stuck.”

There is a difference between talking about your problems to work through them and dwelling on them in a way that makes it hard to move forward. I think therapy can be used both to move forward and to stay stuck. Intention is important, and I think it is a good idea to reflect on that intention at the beginning of anyone’s therapy journey. 

I do not bring up this topic to discourage anyone from pursuing therapy. I think therapy is so important in the seasons we need it. I am only encouraging people to be aware of the limitations and be aware of their intentions, goals and progress. As it occurs in many professions, there are good therapists, bad therapists and therapists with good intentions but incompatible approaches. It is important for patients to take ownership of their experience and progress, so they get the most out of therapy and prevent it from turning into something counterproductive down the road. 

Sarah Ramos is a New Mexico State University graduate from the Counseling and Educational Psychology program who has been an NMSU assistant professor for about two years and a CEP training clinic director for four years. Ramos said that client ownership is something they emphasize in their program. 

Sarah Ramos is an NMSU graduate, assistant professor and clinic training director in the Department of Counseling and Educational Psychology at the university. (Photo courtesy of NMSU)

“A big part that I think we emphasize more here in our training program is reminding ourselves that, yes, we have the expertise as counselors and mental health professionals, but our client has the expertise in their lives,” Ramos said. 

Sometimes people might fear moving on once they have accomplished what they set out to do in therapy because they’ve found comfort in the client-therapist relationship or are afraid they’ll be on their own, she said.  

“It’s actually a good thing when you recognize ‘I’ve done all I can do here’ so I would [suggest] not being scared of having those conversations with your therapist, but also paying attention to how you’re feeling related to why you came into therapy and kind of doing your own self-assessment,” Ramos said. “I think being an active participant in your treatment is really important because, again, going back to the idea that you’re the expert, right? I think recognizing that [and] owning that can help people if they’re going through therapy, but it’s really becoming more of just a habit versus an actual tool they’re using to reach a goal that they have.” 

For people who want to try therapy, Ramos recommends doing some investigating to find the approach that fits your personality, leaning into the initial discomfort, and trusting your expertise. If the first therapist and approach you work with is not aligning with who you are, past leaning into that initial discomfort, it is more than okay to keep searching and find the person and approach that does work for you.  

All in all, my hope is that people recognize that therapy does have limitations and is not inherently a cure-all, but it is a tool that can help people during the times they need it most. I encourage people to reflect, with intention, on the emotional seasons they’re in and what their needs are in those seasons. 

One of my favorite Bible passages, Ecclesiastes 3:1-7 (NLT), puts it best this way: “For everything there is a season, a time for every activity under heaven… A time to tear down and a time to build up. A time to cry and a time to laugh. A time to grieve and a time to dance… A time to embrace and a time to turn away. A time to search and a time to quit searching. A time to keep and a time to throw away. A time to tear and a time to mend. A time to be quiet and a time to speak.” 

Have the courage to speak, to cry, to be vulnerable and to receive support, but also have the wisdom to know when to let go, to move forward, and to just live your life when the time comes.

The views, thoughts, and opinions expressed in this article belong solely to the author, and not necessarily to New Mexico State University, the NMSU Department of Journalism and Media Studies, Kokopelli, or any other organization, committee, group or individual.

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