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Keep This in Mind

A Catholic psychotherapist explains his profession

By Gabriel Somarriba

Fifteen years into the 21st century, there still seems to be a strong, albeit shrinking, stigma around someone seeing a psychotherapist. Perhaps people's impression of therapy is that of the Freudian psychoanalyst silently stroking his beard while his client free-associates on the couch, coming ever closer to admitting that he wants to replace his father and marry his mother... and all this for $300 a session!

Given that this caricature is still prevalent for many, it's no wonder that the stigma of "only crazy people see therapists" remains. In reality, therapy helps countless people with a range of issues—long-term or short-term, relating to their upbringing or to a temporary circumstances, helping someone break through a debilitating depression or just a bad habit that's been hard to shake. Most off all, therapy helps people reach their optimal mental health level, and there are as many ways to reach that as there are people. It is my goal to give readers a more accurate picture of what therapy looks like today.

First, we must discuss what a therapist does before one can decide if a psychological intervention is even necessary. Simply put, a psychotherapist deals primarily within the realms of problematic cognitions, emotions, and behaviors. In other words, if the way a client thinks, feels, and/or acts negatively impacts their life, they may need to see a therapist to effectively work through these obstacles. One example could be a person battling drug addiction. Their addictive behavior would be the primary focus of therapy because of how much damage their acting out has done to their career, health, marriage, and friendships.

Then there are cases when mild to moderate symptoms of anxiety and depression can be brought to a therapist's attention. These cases are the mental-health equivalent of visiting your doctor when you have a cold: there is no real harm in going even though you both know that rest and chicken soup are probably all that's required. If making a doctor visit for your cold symptoms brings comfort and may preemptively uncover a more serious condition, then visiting a therapist for similar reasons is also encouraged.

Most interventions, regardless of methodology (e.g. cognitive behavioral therapy, interpersonal therapy, and so on), can be described as the "talking cure." This is not to be confused with psychiatry in which a client is prescribed medications to address mental health issues. Yet a psychiatric intervention can, for some, come with an even bigger stigma. It is not uncommon for clients to tell me that they DO NOT want to go on meds and would prefer to try therapy. Therefore, it is important to know that a patient seeing a therapist can expect a talk-based intervention that can include plenty of homework assignments, coping strategies, behavioral modification, role-plays, and social skills training.

Good psychological intervention helps people in all areas of their life. For this reason, when it comes to patients who are religious, psychotherapy can and should also aid in the client's spiritual life. This is not to say a client should see a therapist for spiritual direction, but rather a therapist may help a client overcome psychological barriers to grace and spiritual growth. One great example of this is Forgiveness Therapy, the goal of which is to help clients resolve anger over past betrayals in order to gain peace of mind and relieve anxious or depressive symptoms. It's also telling that most seminaries and religious communities require a full psychological assessment as part of the admission process. For this reason, a person of faith should find comfort knowing that there are therapists available that will respect their religious beliefs.

The central point of this article is to let you know that therapy is not meant only for people with severe pathology. Clients with all range of symptoms—including mild to moderate ones—can benefit from bringing their concerns to a therapist. People seeking help from a mental-health professional can expect their therapist to primarily focus on problematic thoughts, feelings, and actions that negatively impact their life. At times, it is also recommended that a client seek a psychiatric intervention in addition to psychotherapy. No matter what the intervention, if we as a culture see nothing wrong about visiting a doctor for back pain, then perhaps the stigma associated with seeing a therapist should be removed as well. Seeing a therapist is not as crazy as some think.

Gabriel Somarriba, Psy.D., is a psychotherapist living in northeast Ohio with his wife and their two children.