Seeking help while facing stigmas

Many students at West seek to improve their mental health with professionals, yet there are still plenty of misconceptions surrounding the topic. Several students share how therapy has influenced them and the role that it plays in their life.

Draped across a couch, a person heaves the woes of their childhood and innermost thoughts, as a man in a tweed jacket with glasses takes notes. This is how a stereotypical therapy session is portrayed in New Yorker cartoons or on television, but such generalizations are a burden on people who benefit from this treatment.

While many teenagers across the country attend therapy, their reasons for seeking help and the role therapy plays in their lives is sometimes misunderstood by their peers. This can cause students who attend therapy to be confronted with stigmas or, in some cases, just not discuss therapy openly due to fear of judgement.

“Lots of people tend to have the stigma that therapy is for people that are crazy or they have issues, but when I started going I realized even if you don’t have that many issues, if you talk to someone about just tiny things it can help your life,” said Katherine Yacopucci ’20, who began therapy following her move to Iowa in sixth grade.

Doctor Patricia Espe-Pfeifer, a Clinical Professor of Psychiatry and Pediatrics, explained that people may attend therapy to help deal with mood, adjusting to life changes, situations with family or school or to cope with other stressors. A misconception she has encountered is the notion that only people with severe issues need a therapist.

“Most often the teenagers that I work with, they’re having to deal with issues that really were out of their control,” said Espe-Pfeifer.

This was the case for Elise Seery ’21, who attended therapy in sixth and seventh grade to treat her extreme phobia regarding sleep. At the time, Seery kept her therapy experience private because she was embarrassed she couldn’t sleep alone in her room and she didn’t have friends in therapy she could relate the experience to.

“That was really hard for me when I was younger. But now, I have some distance from what I went through that I feel like I can talk about it more,” Seery said.

One misconception Seery has noticed in her peer’s understanding of therapy is that only people with certain issues need to go to therapy.

“What is publicized is people who have depression and those kind of issues. People who have things like I do, like anxiety and phobias and that kind of stuff, people don’t believe them. And they don’t think that it’s important, necessarily, or as important,” Seery said. “I still have friends who have seen me at my worst and deal with that who don’t believe it and who just think I’m being dramatic.”

Taylore Kuenster ’19 has been in therapy since seventh grade and her acceptance of it has drastically since starting therapy. She was reluctant to start therapy because she felt the therapist would take the side of her parents over hers and held a grudge against her first therapist because of it. She also avoided talking about it due to fear of judgement. She has become open about her experience over time, but that has led her to face overgeneralizations.

Sometimes when she mentions she is in therapy people assume she is depressed, has anxiety or self harms, which bothers her because mentioning those issues can be triggering to people who are affected by them.

Kuenster feels so close to her current therapist that she looks forward to having conversations with her.

“It’s mostly that I’m just ranting her like I do with any of my other friends, but it’s just ranting to an adult rather than ranting to a person my age,” Kuenster said. “So it definitely plays a big role in my life because I look forward to seeing her and honestly, just tell her all the gossip.”

In a more serious way, she looks to her therapist as a key provider of advice and values getting her input on her situations.

“They’re playing another support system and another voice in your life and it’s just nice to get another opinion other than people that you’re close,” Kuenster said.

It’s been such an influential part of her life that the college bound student plans to study family services and psychology at University of Northern Iowa. She’s always wanted to help people and discovered a year ago that therapy was the way she wanted to do so.

“I want to get a job in mental health therapy and work on that level … since I’ve gone to therapy all my life, I’ve been very influenced and that’s my passion,” Kuenster said.

Connor Hayes ’20 is fairly private about therapy in conversations, but his close friends are supportive that he has started going in the past few months.

“I never really liked therapy, I just sort of thought I could handle it myself, but then going into it I just kind of got used to it and it helped me a lot,” said Hayes.

After struggling with depression for three years he decided he needed help. Since starting, he says he is happier and can talk about his problems in a more effective way.

That same notion is echoed by Yacoppuci.

“[Professional therapists] make you feel heard. And it’s really nice to talk to someone that doesn’t necessarily understand what you’re going through, but they have ways to help you through it,” Yacoppuci said.

The general consensus from the students is that it’s a healthy way to get out feelings and work through problems. There is a vast range of reasons why someone may seek therapy; clumping attendees together and making overgeneralizations can perpetuate stereotypes and make talking about therapy more difficult.

“It’s not something that should be considered scary, it’s not a sign of weakness that you go to therapy,” Seery said. “It’s a completely normal thing that people do just to stay healthy.”

Infographics by Sidney Kiersch 

Pull quotes by Emma Hall