By Selena Snow, Ph.D., Licensed Psychologist
My son’s basketball coach frequently calls out to the kids, “Look up and see what you got!” When the boys get the ball, they often think that they have to get it back down to the other end of the court and score all on their own. Their coach tries to remind them to look up from dribbling and see who on the team can help them to score. Often in life, we too forget to look up and see who is available to help us. Even when we know who is there, it can still be difficult to ask for help. Just as one player isn’t wholly responsible for achieving the win, we also do not have to accomplish our goals all on our own. We can turn for help to the rest of our team, be it friends, family, community members, religious leaders, professionals at JCADA, or mental health professionals in the community at large.
Our willingness to ask others for help at times is what can truly make us independent. For example, when an older adult is willing to accept help with meals and housekeeping, he or she may be able to continue living on his or her own in the community. Similarly, when I ask my accountant for help managing the financial aspects of my psychology practice, I am then able to successfully continue running an independent private practice. The same thing holds true for seeking psychological help when we are struggling with depression, anxiety, trauma, or domestic violence. Asking for help is the first step to empower ourselves to overcome challenges and emerge with new tools and skills that can be applied throughout our lifetimes.
Unfortunately, we are often held back by misconceptions that others will judge us negatively if we let them know about our personal struggles and challenges. Yet the more we isolate ourselves with our difficulties, the more alone we feel and the less we are able to tap into the rest of our team for the strength and support that we need. It is important to remember that mental illness is quite prevalent. Government surveys have found that 1 in 5 American adults experience a mental illness in a given year.1 It is not shameful to struggle with emotional difficulties; rather, it is a shame not to get the help that is available. Research has shown that it can take a long time to ask for that help.2
One of the barriers to asking for help is lack of information. Who should I ask for help? How will I know if they are any good? A friend recently asked me for a referral for her child, as many of my friends have done over the years. Once she was able to get past her discomfort of asking, she was able to get connected to helpful resources. Use your team to find out where to go for help. Try asking mental health professionals you may know, checking online information sources, or asking medical providers for referrals.
Other barriers to asking for help include fear of rejection and fear of failure. What if I ask someone for help and they say no? What if I try to make improvements in my life and I don’t succeed? These are the types of thoughts that can prevent people from accessing help and hold them back in other spheres of life as well.
Try to challenge negative thoughts and ask yourself what it would mean if these feared events occurred and if there are other ways to think about them. For example, “I can handle it if someone says ‘no’ and it won’t be a catastrophe. It may not even have anything to do with me.” You can also try the double-standard-exercise of asking yourself what you would say to someone else contemplating getting help. You would likely imagine saying something kinder and more encouraging to others than what you would have said to yourself.
Another impediment to asking for help is not prioritizing self-care. We’re all so busy taking care of family, jobs, and myriad responsibilities, that our own needs fall very low on the priority list. Learning to carve out time to tend to our own well-being in spite of the many demands upon us can ensure that we continue to successfully meet those demands. Taking that first step of asking for help is already creating a shift in beginning to prioritize self-care. Hopefully, the thoughts in this article will encourage us all to ask for help when we need it, as well as be there for others when they reach out.
Dr. Selena Snow is a licensed psychologist in the state of Maryland. She earned her Ph.D. in Clinical Psychology in 1999 from the University of Maryland and a B.A. in Psychology from the City University of New York. She is currently in private practice in Rockville, MD, and specializes in treating adults and adolescents for depression, anxiety/stress, anger management, relationship issues, and adjustment to life transitions, such as childbirth, divorce, death/loss, medical illness, and changes in school or work status.
1 Results from the 2011 National Survey on Drug Use and Health: Mental Health Findings. 2012.Results from the 2013 National Survey on Drug Use and Health: Mental Health Findings. 2014.
2 Notarius & Buongiorno, 1992, as cited in Gottman, J. M., & Gottman, J. S. (1999). The marriage survival kit. In R. Berger & M. T. Hannah (Eds.), Preventive approaches in couples therapy (pp. 304–330). Philadelphia: Brunner⁄Mazel.