This is going to sound outrageous but if you’ve ever sought mental health services in Toronto you will not be shocked by what I am about to say. I’ve been going to therapy since I was 15, that’s a total of 18 years and in those years I’ve seen maybe 20 different medical professionals including psychiatrists, psychologists, general practitioners (GPs) who do therapy, social workers and psychotherapists. And please consider that I am on the high functioning side, imagine those who are more severe – God knows their struggle to find help. Honestly, it can be quite interesting, challenging and exhausting at times searching for the proper help. Here are a few salient stories from throughout the years and my advice on finding the “one.”
Immigrant, brown, white, Chinese, Jewish, (not black which is a huge shame), young, middle aged, old, homosexual, straight, mothers or fathers, I’ve seen so many very different types of people for my mental health but I’ll try to stick to a few here. The majority of these experiences happened through referrals so I guess they were all connected somehow. Some were free, some I had to pay for, sometimes I had coverage sometimes I did not. Looking back I got lucky with free or OHIP covered student services, medical centres (GPs providing therapy), and social workers, actually looking back I got hella lucky. Medication has taken a toll on my pocket though, I’ll tell you that much.
The first medical professional I saw was an older psychiatrist in her home. I do recall going with family members, the home being very old school/traditional and exactly what she said to me. She said, “You’re 16, you should be out dancing. Try some Paxil.” I kid you not. There was no therapy talk, no digging into my symptoms or situation, just here are some meds, make sure you go to prom. I never saw her again and didn’t take the Paxil. This was the first interaction with a psychiatrist that coloured the rest of my experiences with them.
In the beginning and a couple times throughout the years, there were short term transitional individuals I would see, not terrible experiences but I mean what can someone really do for you in a few sessions?
Before I left town for undergrad, there was an older Indian man, maybe the age of my parents, he was lovely but nothing he said really got through to me. With him, was the first time I was told about Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT). I recall him drawing a cycle diagram with arrows and circles and saying “A thought leads to a feeling and a feeling to a behaviour and a behaviour to a thought.” Honestly, it was just way too early in my journey to get any of it. I was still very much in an adolescent place, like what is this man telling me? What does this have to do with my crippling despair? Get me out of here! There was a lot of smiling politely.
When I went off to University in another city, I knew right away, obviously, I would need the extra support. My school had great on campus medical care for students in the form of a Student Wellness Centre. It lay in the basement of the student centre, my refuge. He was a red-headed psychologist with a long beard (before beards were a thing), very gentle, caring, smart, real and a little hippie – okay a lot hippie. He was a great stable relationship for me. I do recall passing him by on campus and we’d acknowledge one another but not overly so to prompt anyone with me to ask, “aw who’s that?”
One of the longest relationships with a therapist I’ve had, was a short Jewish lady who was a general practitioner. I’d come in, sit on the chair next to the examination table and we’d have long sessions, instead of the quicker appointments normally provided. Honestly, she was amazing and became a type of parental figure for me. Again, she was sympathetic, real, kind and funny. She understood where I was coming from being a type-A perfectionist woman and the constant burden and stress I was putting on myself. She wasn’t necessarily a trained psychotherapist but shit she was good! What I loved about her was that when things were outside of her scope, she acknowledged it and we would search for other services together, for instance when it came to my OCD. I believe I saw her for 3 to 4 years, maybe longer. I would even trek from downtown to the suburbs to see her. Sadly, (for me) she became pregnant, went on mat leave and would return to work at a location too far for me to commute. I cried some real tears when she told me and gave her a very special gift for her baby on our last session.
Sidenote: She would be concerned if she could still do physicals on me and made it a point to ask me if that was ok, which I thought was hilarious. I’m telling you my most intimate thoughts and feelings, I don’t think getting a pap and internal physical done is going to cross any lines at this point.
Okay so, imagine some more bouncing around, varying lengths of time etc. until I made my way to a social worker to do some CBT! He was around my age which was interesting. He could have been a bit younger or older, I never figured that out. He was lovely. He had face piercings, was pretty stylish and he got it. Definitely saw him on the street a few times but never made eye contact, not on purpose, he just never saw me! Anyway, I have mentioned that comparison, standards, where I am in life, my achievements etc. is one of the issues behind my depression and being a peer of the same generation, he understood where I was coming from. We had some fantastic CBT sessions and I truly felt a shift in my thinking and became a true believer in it. The catch though? I only had a set number of sessions with him and then it was adiós. But that is the point of doing CBT, it helps you shift your thinking and then it’s over. He was kind enough to find me a social worker he knew who would provide me with a lower price based on my income level. (I really have had quite a bit of luck and plain ol’ kindness of others helping me along the way!)
I recently saw a woman who was only a couple years older than me and also trained at a school I had never heard of so I was a bit skeptic. She spoke of chakras and energy on top of the typical psychological theory. However, she was amazing and it was so good to talk to a woman my age – she was single like me, had similar interests and life experiences. It was golden. And super affordable because she was still in school.
There were times I did meet a therapist and simply didn’t connect or like them and what they had to say, this is what led to such a high count of people I’ve seen. It was never difficult for me to stop seeing someone right away, I mean if I can stop seeing a certain wax lady, I can stop therapy with someone I’m not fond of.
Race and ethnicity is a big thing, it affects how you think, daily life, family history, etc. I would love to find a black female (or male) therapist one day! I did bring up race to my current therapist and she handled it pretty well! She was earnest and genuinely sympathetic to the plight I brought up, I was impressed, that could have gone real sideways.
I typically do a bit of role-rehearsal and ask the therapist personal questions once I am comfortable and feel that we have enough of a relationship to cross that line. Do you have kids? How many? Are you married? Where did you go to school (If I didn’t know already)? I’m sorry, I need to know what that person has experienced in their personal lives and where/what they studied. Who is this person trying to provide me with treatment of my mind and soul?
- Firstly, you have to work the system – health care is free in Canada but you have to get to know what you are working with and advocate for yourself.
- Don’t judge, try different professionals! You never know where that gem of advice might be! Don’t be stush!
- Culture and race are important. the Jewish lady knew the pressure immigrant families can have on their children, and the dynamics of that type of family.
- Age can be important depending on what you are looking for or the issues you are dealing with at the time.
- You’re going to grow and though all this switching was exhausting for me, well it kind of worked with my evolution as a woman and the stages of my depression and advancement in my coping skills.
- Don’t push, if you honestly feel like you can’t discuss a certain topic or aren’t stable/strong enough at the time, don’t. Only do what you are ready for and only you can know that.
- You’ve got to navigate around the money issue – find someone on a sliding scale based on income, see a student you connect with or a new grad.
- There are sites with local listings, for instance professional association sites.
- Ask around – does anyone know a GP who does therapy as well? Does your primary care office know of someone?
- Check your coverage (like call them) – some cover social workers, some a certain amount per year. Maybe advocate for this type of coverage at your work with HR if you’re comfortable. Trust me, I highly doubt you are the only person at your job who needs therapy benefits.
- Lastly, not every session is going to blow your mind, sometimes you have breakthroughs, some days you get nothing but release maybe, and others you leave with just one golden nugget maybe.
It takes work and time but there is help out there and I wish you all the best on your search!
What has your experience been like with different therapists?