Catherine Kirch writes about the difficult steps she went through finding a therapist and the general disregard for mental healthcare in the US.
“So, tell me why you’re here.”
I played with a loose thread on my chair while I thought about what to say. Every initial consultation with a potential therapist seemed to call upon me to rehash my whole life—my past traumas, my relationship with my family, my history with anxiety and depression. Finding a new therapist is a drag.
“But that all happened a long time ago,” she said, adjusting her glasses. “Why seek out therapy now?”
I could tell she was expecting there to be some recent incident—some catastrophe or event or breakdown. But there wasn’t. I had been falling on and off the therapy-seeking train for almost two and a half years, and I’d been thinking about therapy a long time before that. The only “why now” reason for me was the fact that I had people in my life encouraging me to persevere through the confusing and disheartening process.
I saw a campus therapist in college for about a year, but after a summer away from school, I never dove back in. Then I moved. Then I moved again. And then I was off my parent’s insurance and on Medicaid.
I had started and stopped the process a number of times over the years, almost always the same story: I’d get a recommendation or find an office in an online search, attempt to set up an initial appointment, and then discover they weren’t taking new patients, or weren’t accepting my insurance, or both.
With encouragement from my friends and especially from my partner, I got a list of therapists from my insurance company, and I just started going down the list, making phone calls and leaving messages. I told myself I just had to call three a day. On good days, I called five or six.
For the first few days, I didn’t hear back from anyone. Then, a handful of replies started trickling in:
I began to feel defeated, to say the least. Knowing it could take time to find the right therapist, I had prepared to go on a bunch of intakes, but it seemed nearly impossible to even set up one. And more intakes meant more calls and more disappointment.
Three weeks and dozens of phone calls later, I had two initial appointments set up. And I was exhausted.
Working on your mental health should be as easy as working on your physical health. True, even that can be frustrating, especially on Medicaid, but the network of doctors seems, from my experience, vastly more accessible in comparison.
Could you imagine if everyone were assigned a primary therapist in addition to being assigned a primary care provider? And then if that person didn’t work out, you could easily switch (like I had to do with my primary care provider last year). How much easier it would be for everyone to make their mental health a priority?
I’m lucky to have woken up with enough energy to make dozens of phone calls. I’m even luckier to have a network of supporters encouraging me to follow through. The sick irony is that on my worst days, the days when my need for a therapist is most apparent, I don’t have the drive. There are people who are stuck in a string of worst days, with things much worse than I have, who perhaps don’t have insurance at all—and we expect them to jump through all these hoops even before getting to the part where they get help?
How many times do we recommend that people we care about see therapists? We exclaim how important looking after your mental health is. We gush about the benefits of therapy, self-help and self-care. And it’s true, 100%. Therapy is great. But we don’t talk enough about how hard it can be to take that step—not only acknowledging you need help, which is hard, but also going through this seemingly impenetrable process to finding a therapist that will see you.
This story has a happy ending: I found a therapist. But the commitment it required makes me wonder how many people are struggling on their own; no therapist, no support network helping them through the process. There is a lot of talk about reducing the stigma surrounding mental health and while important, stigma isn’t the only barrier keeping people out of therapy. If we are going to normalize seeking help, we need to radically revise the systems that make that help accessible.
Catherine Y. Kirch is a writing and editing professional in New York City, with a fiction writing MFA from Columbia University. As an adjunct professor and writing consultant, Catherine is passionate about helping all writers develop their personal writing practice. In her spare time, she enjoys singing karaoke, watching ice hockey, and playing Dungeons and Dragons. You can find Catherine on Instagram Twitter or on her website My Writing Hero.