When to See a Mental Health Professional
Toughness used to be a big part of my identity. Years of gymnastics taught me to have grit, heart, and courage. But I had the courage part wrong. I completely bought into the “suck it up” and “be tough at all costs” culture. I wore injuries like a badge of honor. When people stopped the sport, I thought they just couldn’t cut it.
Now I know better. I know that courage is vulnerability and doing what’s needed for the situation. I know that instead of being tough, I was putting up walls to protect myself. I know that the toughness narrative is a way the performance environment exploits anything it views as a weakness. And I know that ultimately performers are the ones who suffer.
By the point I needed the help of a professional, I was so jaded that it felt pointless. The idea of opening up to someone felt so incredibly futile to me. What was the point if nothing would change? What was the point if they couldn’t understand? I suffered in silence for so long because I felt like I had to hold it all inside. I wish I had known there was a better option.
An option I didn’t need to suffer in silence. That vulnerability is not weakness. That I can be tough and take care of myself, just like I can be grateful and powerful in my art.
If you’re wondering when to see a mental health professional, there’s no harm in going early. And if you’re thinking about it, it makes sense to listen to that voice and take a brave step.
Need more guidance? Here are three guideposts for when to see a mental health professional.
You’re distressed in some way
Mental health symptoms need attention all the time, but especially when we feel distressed by them. If you’re noticed feeling very distressed or upset by what’s going on in your life, it’s time to make an appointment.
This might include:
You’re feeling sad, down, or depressed more days than not
You’re feeling anxious or on edge more days than not
You feel hopeless or dejected that things will get better
You feel detached from others, lonely, or isolated
You feel guilty or ashamed about things that are not your fault or not directly caused by you
You’ve experienced trauma and it’s still bothering you
You find yourself crying frequently
This is not an exhaustive list. If you’re spending more days than not feeling like you’re struggling, you could probably benefit from therapy.
Your mental health drips into other life areas
Another telltale sign that things could use some improvement is that your mental health negatively impacts your day-to-day functioning. If you find your struggles bleeding into life areas, such that you can’t keep up with typical responsibilities, you should strongly consider reaching out.
This might include:
You miss work or school responsibilities (more than a mental health day here and there)
You find it hard to do things you used to enjoy
Even when you’re at work or school, you feel not really there, like you’re going through the motions, or things feel impossibly challenging
It feels like a chore to keep up with relationships or social obligations
You have sleep difficulties (being unable to fall or stay asleep, early waking, or sleeping too much or too little) that cause fatigue and impact your functioning
Your mental health impacts you physically (weight loss or too low weight, gastrointestinal distress or stomach aches, lethargy, muscle tension, headaches, etc.)
You find it hard to do things you used to do
In general, your work, schoolwork, athletic or artistic performance suffers
You want to improve your quality of life, reach peak fulfillment, or up your mental game
One of the biggest misconceptions about therapy is that its purpose is to fix problems. Of course, most people see mental health professionals when things aren't going as well as they could, but you can also preemptively look after your mental health.
I challenge people to view therapists like their primary care doctor. You can go to your primary care doctor only when something is wrong, but you also go for yearly checkups. Therapy can be like that too. Something doesn’t have to be “wrong” before you go. And more often than not, by the time something is “wrong,” you may be really struggling.
Therapy can help with general self-improvement. You might be performing well, but want to be performing better. Or you might want to improve one certain aspect of mental wellness or performance, like sleep, performance routines, or establishing goals to facilitate achievement. You may want to optimize your relationships or firm up your support system. You might anticipate an upcoming season that could be stressful or mentally taxing, and use therapy as a way to effectively prepare for it.
If you want to discern what could improve in your life, ask yourself,
What’s the difference between the life I have now and the life I want?
If I woke up tomorrow and my life was going the way I wanted, what would be different?
Mental health professionals or sport psychology practitioners are experts in human behavior. They can help you identify what you want and go after it.
How to find help
As a dancer, you have amazing resources at your fingertips, even if you don’t know it yet.
In particular, Minding the Gap is an organization dedicated to destigmatizing mental health among dancers. Minding the Gap fundraises, conducts research, and connects dancers with vital resources to preserve mental wellness. They also host helpful videos for mental health, including discussions of body image, perfectionism, and professional closure.
Starting on May 19, OKAY LET’S UNPACK THIS is hosting an 8-week, free virtual support group for dancers to “take collective care.” This group emphasizes an anti-oppressive approach that allows dancers to process how social factors and identity markers impact their well-being. You can sign up using this form.
If you want individual support, Psychology Today has a useful provider directory to help you get in touch with the right provider.
Don’t wait to act
19% of adults are managing mental health concerns right now. You are not alone. You don’t have to hide. And you definitely don’t have to wait to take action.
We know that dancers are extremely vulnerable to certain mental health conditions, and the culture and structure of dance make it challenging for dancers to get the mental health care they need. So don’t wait. Act early, swiftly, and effectively.
If you notice that you’re distressed about what’s happening in life, reach out. If you find that your concerns are impacting your ability to live your life, definitely reach out. Even if nothing is going wrong but you want to improve your mental wellness, you can still benefit from therapy or performance consulting.
Above all else, take care of you.
Dr. Marina Harris is a specialist in eating disorders, sport psychology, trauma-informed care, and mindfulness. She currently works as a fellow at the University of North Carolina Center of Excellence for Eating Disorders (CEED) and the Carolina Athletics Mental Health and Performance Program. She also works to make mental health information more accessible through writing. Check out her blog, Letters From Your Therapist, on Psychology Today, or her website, www.drmarinaharris.com.