Think you are past the point of help? Think again. Why your mental health may still be within reach.
Earlier this week a friend asked me a question about being a therapist:
“Is every problem you encounter treatable? Or are some clients past the point of help?”
I want to talk about some different factors that affect your ability to achieve greater mental health.
Depends on your wound…
Not all wounds are equal.
Some mental health problems are more treatable than others. Schizophrenia, for example, has a very bleak prognosis – there are very few people who find recovery from their illness. Most who suffer from this illness will be on medication for their entire lives.
However, problems with work environments, relationships, depression, anxiety, or identity problems are much more treatable. Across the board, most people who come to therapy for these problems find relief. Many other problems, such as personality disorders, childhood trauma, or PTSD, are somewhere in the middle, and require more work to heal.
Depends on how recently your pain occurred…
In general, the less recently the wound occurred, the more work it takes to heal. Think of it like a broken leg: Say two people come to the hospital with a broken leg. The first is rushed to the hospital only minutes after the break, the second had waited a day before coming in. The first person’s leg has a much better chance of being reset.
Our minds are the same way. The more time we allow our pains to “set” on their own, the more we become fixed in unhelpful patterns. You may know what this feels like. Picture a recent time you may have been hurt by your friend or spouse. The more time passes, the more that “injury” becomes part of the way you interact with that person. You may trust them less, or speak in more passive-aggressive ways, or in general feel more disconnected from the relationship. However, if the hurt is initially talked about in a direct and understanding way, there may be a chance for healing and even growth to occur.
Depends on how early your pain occurred…
The younger you were when your pain occurred, the more work it takes to heal.
You might think of your mind like a house. Let’s say a storm comes while the foundation is still being set, washing away some footings or cracking the foundation. When the carpenters come to build the rest of the house, some walls that may have needed those footings may be left incomplete, leaving the house more vulnerable to other storms.
Now consider what it would be like if the house was protected from the storm. When other storms come, the house already has a roof and siding. Most repairs can be done by the home owner, and some require some special help by a professional. In the same way, most wounds that we receive as children require more care and attention because there are so many parts of our minds and personalities that are built around an early wound. Wounds we receive as adults can be painful and disorienting, but need less work to fix.
The younger you are, the less work it takes to heal.
Now, this may sound like a contradiction. But let me explain. The older we get, the less plastic our minds become. Plasticity is when our minds are moldable and stretchable. Think of a ball of clay in the freezer: the clay is easily molded at first, but slowly becomes hard and difficult to form. A 5-year-old can learn a second language much easier than a 50-year-old. This is why I highly advocate for child therapy. If your child is having an emotional or relational problem, it is much easier to address the problem today than 2 years or 10 years from now. The longer we wait to address issues, the less our minds are able to adapt and form new pathways. But there is hope: our brains can always become more plastic and moldable (but that sounds like a topic for another blog article).
Depends on what you mean by “treatable”…
In one sense, every mental illness is treatable. There are ways to help provide a better quality of life for every person who suffers from mental illness.
In another sense, there is no magic wand. Many people come into psychotherapy with idealistic notions that their symptoms will be erased. A person may come to psychotherapy hoping that once they’re healed they’ll never have to be angry again, only to learn that anger is an essential and helpful human experience. The destination of a journey sometimes changes because the journey changes us.
I’ve heard of a therapist who asks a question of his clients after years of therapy: “If you could go back in time to when we first started therapy and wave a magic wand to get everything you wanted back then, would you?” His clients all declared, “no!” The journey changes us in ways we never could have imagined.
Depends on your perspective…
Behind the question of whether we are beyond help are 2 postures: hope and dread. Whatever you’re struggling with, it can be scary to think there is no help. This creates a spiral of dread that’s difficult to control: we begin feeling depressed or anxious, then we think, “what if I can’t ever feel normal again? What if there’s no help for me!?”. These thoughts then push us into deeper depression and worry. Before we ever make an appointment with a therapist, or even reach out to a friend, dread creeps in: “What if this person can’t help me? What if no-one can help me? What if I’m alone in this?”.
Hope is a different posture that opens us up to an upward spiral. It’s a light at the end of the tunnel; it’s the belief that help and healing is possible. Hope doesn’t first come from finding what we’re looking for, it first comes from the feeling that we are not alone. It comes from sensing that another person can understand and partner with us in the journey toward healing. I am grateful for the times I’ve sensed this partnership with my clients. It’s as if a burden is lifted when they begin to sense someone is there with them.
Are you beyond help? Despite our neat ways of categorizing ourselves and our pain, each person’s wounds are incredibly unique. I believe opening yourself up to receive help gives you the best chance to finding relief. As you do, I trust you will not only find relief, but experience a more present, connected, and full life.