When Do People Seek Help From Others?
Two factors seem to be necessary for people to seek help (Gross & McMullen, 1983). First, a person must become aware that she or he is in pain or is facing a difficult situation and then must perceive her or his feelings or situation as being problematic. Obviously, the perception of pain varies from person to person, such that what is unbearable for one person is easily tolerated or ignored by another person.
Second, the pain must be greater than the perceived barriers to seeking help. Sometimes the barriers involve practical considerations, such as the time or money required to obtain help; but often the obstacles are emotional and can include fears about exploring problems deeply or concerns about the opinions of others regarding people who seek therapy.
Many people hesitate to seek professional help (Gross & McMullen, 1983) because they feel embarrassed or ashamed about asking for assistance or believe that seeking help constitutes emotional weakness or inadequacy (Shapiro, 1984). Many Americans, for example, believe that individuals should rely solely on themselves and that all problems should be solved individually. Given these beliefs, it is not surprising that researchers have found that people seek help first from friends and family members and only last from professionals (Snyder, Hill, & Derksen, 1972; Tinsley, de St. Aubin, & Brown, 1982; Webster & Fretz, 1978).
Some people are concerned about talking with others because they feel that no one else can possibly understand their situation (e.g., Thomas thought that no one could understand his experience growing up in a religious cult). Others fear a punitive response or a value judgment regarding their thoughts, feelings, or actions (e.g., Candace felt that she would be judged for having had two abortions). Furthermore, some people may be concerned that they will be labeled mentally ill
and thus be subject to the many negative stereotypes and stigma associated with this label (Hill et al., 2012; D. Sue, Sue, & Sue, 1994). Some clients may be hesitant to seek therapy because they rely on their insurance companies to pay for therapy: They may be concerned that the stigma associated with receiving therapy could have negative ramifications for obtaining insurance or employment in the future.
For example, Conchita came to her first session of psychotherapy because she was experiencing multiple stressors: Her mother had committed suicide 3 years earlier, her sister had been diagnosed with depression, she was failing all of her courses (previously, she had been an A student), her first serious boyfriend had broken up with her, and she was pregnant. For some time, Conchita had felt that she should handle her problems by herself because she feared what others might think of her if they knew that she needed to see a therapist. Moreover, she was on a limited budget and was reluctant to pay for therapy. However, Conchita had begun to feel that she could no longer cope with her problems by herself. Her brother had gone to a therapist and felt better, so she thought that going to a therapist might work for her. Thus, Conchita sought help because she perceived herself as having problems and she believed that the potential benefits associated with therapy (e.g., emotional support, assistance with coping) outweighed the costs (e.g., financial expense, perceived stigma).
Individuals in considerable pain who are able to admit their need for psychological assistance have made significant progress toward obtaining the help they need. Support from friends and family can provide the encouragement these individuals need to contact trained helpers (Gourash, 1978). For example, Joe was reluctant to seek help after his wife of 40 years died. His friends and children encouraged him to attend a support group for adults who had lost their partners. Although initially reluctant, Joe was so upset about his loss that he agreed to participate in the group sessions if his daughters would accompany him. The support his family and friends provided enabled Joe to access the help that he needed.
Helpers can work to change negative attitudes about seeking professional psychological assistance in our society. We can begin by seeking help ourselves and encouraging others to seek help when needed. We can also work to initiate and support legislation for additional mental health benefits. In addition, we can work to educate the public by publicizing information about mental health treatments. Finally, we can do research to discover more about the process and outcome of helping endeavors and disseminate these research findings to the public.
On Becoming a Helper
The model I promote in this fourth edition of Helping Skills describes three components to being a successful helper: helping skills, self-awareness, and a
facilitative attitude. See Figure 1.1 for the connections among these three components.