This is a surprisingly common question with a (mostly) simple answer: whenever you want!
First, I applaud you for asking this question and being curious about therapy. There is no right or wrong, or good or bad reason or time to begin working with a therapist. Therapy is for everyone at all ages and stages of life. It’s a process of getting to know yourself better and becoming more aware of your patterns and what makes you tick, with the help of a trusted, trained, and neutral guide. If you want and are ready to, therapy can also help you make changes that enhance your life. However, there are certain times when professional help is needed sooner than later and you shouldn’t wait to reach out, even though there are certain factors that may prevent someone from reaching out. So while the answer is simple, there are more layers to it than you might think.
Stigma, whether cultural or societal or both, can stop someone from reaching out to start therapy. Some cultures do not believe in therapy or believe that personal information should not be shared outside the home. A general distrust of the medical and mental health system is another common reason an individual may not reach out. Some people, particularly BIPOC, are understandably distrustful of mental health professionals, especially since it can be difficult to find a therapist of color. Additionally, historically in our society, we’ve been taught to believe that therapy is for “crazy” people. The reality is that everyone can benefit from therapy and even your therapist has a therapist! Choosing a culturally competent and sensitive therapist as well as someone who is going to listen to and validate your fears and concerns, and speak openly and nonjudgmentally about them, goes a long way in dealing with feelings of shame, embarrassment, or doubt attached to seeking help.
I’ve heard from clients many times before at the beginning of their therapy journey that they feel guilty for sitting with me because other people have “bigger” or “worse” problems than them. They feel they shouldn’t be taking up my time when I could be seeing those people with bigger and worse problems. This is when I usually say, “I understand that and it’s so common to feel that way…but so what?” Just like there is always someone smarter and prettier than us, there will always be someone with bigger or worse problems. But who is to say that anyone’s problems are objectively worse than yours? These are your problems and feelings and they are significant to you, and therefore significant to me as your therapist. They are what you are dealing with and what is affecting you and your life, so it’s super valid for you to be sitting with me in therapy telling me about them. There is no contest and good therapists will never invalidate your feelings and experiences. It really sucks to feel not only bad about what is happening in your life, but to then add a layer of guilt on top of that can feel even worse. I promise you- we are not comparing you to our other clients and their issues. We simply want to help you work through yours, whatever that looks like for you and your therapy.
For a question with such a seemingly simple answer, there are some factors that make this answer a bit more complicated. There are some times when professional help is needed sooner than later. For example, if you’re in an abusive relationship and need support and/or safety planning. Other signs that help is needed immediately are that whatever you’re going through or feeling is impacting your daily life, it’s hard for you to function at school or work, your relationships are suffering, your eating or sleeping has dramatically changed, it’s difficult for you to muster the energy to get out of bed or shower or brush your teeth, you’re thinking about harming or killing yourself or someone else, you’re not coping with the issue in a healthy way (drugs, alcohol, self-harm), you feel hopeless or helpless, you’re socially isolating or withdrawing, and you’re not enjoying the things you once did. These are times when seeking help is necessary and cannot wait so it’s important to reach out to a loved one, your doctor, a hotline, a teacher or other school staff, or anyone else you trust to assist you in getting immediate support.
I highly suggest finding a therapist before you reach “crisis level.” The process of finding a therapist can be like dating. You may not find “the one” right away. You’ve got to find someone near you (although telehealth has been great in this respect), who is taking new clients, who has experience in the issues you’re looking for support with, and who is a good fit for you interpersonally, emotionally, and financially. So it’s ideal if you’re not conducting this search while in a crisis situation where you need to see someone immediately to experience relief. A crisis situation can be as serious as the ones discussed above, or other challenging life transitions, positive or negative, like a new job, marriage, children, or feeling overwhelmed or stressed with any aspect of your life.
No matter when you start therapy, reaching out for help takes a lot of courage. It’s a lot easier to remain in the same situation and keep things to yourself than it is to acknowledge that you need support and actively reach out for it. I’m really proud of each and every one of my clients for making the choice to reach out and open up to me about the struggles and hardships in their lives and for letting me hold the space for them to share their most difficult and personal thoughts and feelings. As therapists, we know how difficult this can be, and we are honored to hold this space for you.
Please don’t hesitate to reach out to me for a free phone consultation or if you have any questions about beginning your therapy practice with me!
If you are in a crisis and need immediate support:
Text HOME to 741741 (Crisis Text Line)
Call 800-273-8255 (National Suicide Prevention Lifeline)