The Purpose Of Therapy: How Professional Support Can Help

Medically reviewed by Laura Angers Maddox, NCC, LPC
Updated April 30, 2024by BetterHelp Editorial Team

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 20.3% of US adults received some form of mental health treatment in 2020. Despite this growing number, many people may still feel uncertain about therapy's value. In addition, some communities may face stigmas and misinformation about the therapy's purpose and what it means to see a therapist. 

If you're unsure why therapy exists, have heard that it isn't effective, or are looking for more information, exploring the facts to gain a more complete view of this treatment approach can be valuable. 

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Understanding uncertainty

For some people, their uncertainty surrounding therapy might come from what they've seen in the media, heard from friends and family, or may stem from an unclear sense of what sessions might entail. Others might feel that therapy is a "waste of time" or offers advice they can receive elsewhere. 

If you're uncertain about therapy, you're not alone. However, examining and deconstructing a few common stigmas and misconceptions you may have heard about mental health care can be helpful. 

Common stigmas around seeking support

There are a few stigmas associated with seeking therapy from mental health professionals. For example, men are often discouraged from talking to a therapist due to unhealthy gender norms, including beliefs that therapy is “not manly” or even "emasculating." Many men are encouraged to support themselves, hide their emotions, and denounce support to the point that depression and other health conditions may go undetected. 

In addition, some people may see going to therapy as a "failure" or "weakness." They may believe that seeking help from a professional means they were unsuccessful in self-sufficiency. However, these beliefs can be harmful, as reaching out for support can be an act of bravery and a way to take control over your mental health. Caring for your mental health can be an essential form of self-compassion, regardless of whether it involves professional guidance. 

Stigma can be fostered by public, personal, institutional, and cultural beliefs. Here are some common stigmas surrounding therapy

  • Public stigma: Myths in the media, common beliefs in popular culture, and stigmas between public groups 

  • Personal stigma: Beliefs you may carry about yourself based on life experiences, public perceptions, and personal values

  • Institutional stigma: Beliefs spread in institutions like the government or mental healthcare centers, and a lack of opportunity to get proper mental health services

  • Cultural stigma: Cultural messages, religious beliefs, and familial pressure 

Many people may face stigma about reaching out for help because their family or friends tell them it's "unnecessary" or "weak." Some communities may also be less likely to ask for help, including BIPOC communities, due to stigmas and a lack of quality and culturally-informed resources. However, bringing awareness to these realities can help providers take steps to make their practice more inclusive and convenient to these communities. 

Misconceptions about counseling 

There are also many misconceptions about counseling that might discourage individuals from seeking support, including the following: 

Myth: “Therapy is only for people with mental illness” 

Although many people believe therapy is only for those with a severe mental illness, anyone can go to (and typically benefit from) sessions. There are many therapeutic approaches, and counselors can often offer support with many concerns that are not mental illness related. These issues include, but aren’t limited to:

  • Stress and anxiety
  • Major life changes
  • Relationship challenges
  • Career and educational goals
  • Life and family planning
  • Adoption and foster care
  • Adverse events
  • Grief
  • Pet loss
  • Miscarriage and pregnancy support
  • Decision-making support
  • Identity-related challenges
  • Neurodivergence
  • Navigating non-monogamy
  • Sexual challenges

There are many topics therapists are trained to support clients in; in some cases, sessions will be unique and personalized to the client. If you're hesitant to try counseling because you have not been diagnosed with a mental illness, it's important to know that you do not have to be diagnosed to receive support. 

If your health insurance company requires a diagnosis for a visit to be covered, your therapist may talk to you about your options. You can also try meeting with online therapists, as they often have affordable pricing options. 

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Myth: “All therapy involves talking without resolution” 

People may imagine treatment as a client lying on a sofa and talking about their feelings while a therapist nods and validates them. However, this type of talk therapy is only one out of over 400 modalities. Many forms are interactive, supportive, and unique. Even cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT), which is one of the most effective and studied forms of talk therapy, can involve exercises and activities and can be combined with other counseling modalities and health services.

You can partake in counseling individually, in a couple, as a family, or in a group. In addition, your therapist may offer worksheets, interactive activities in session, art supplies, creative projects, and other ways to fully engage with your treatment. 

Myth: “Couples counselors pick sides and advocate for divorce” 

If you're considering couples therapy, you might worry that your therapist will "pick sides" or tell you to break up or divorce. These fears are common, but couples and family therapists are almost always trained to remain impartial third parties with clients. A therapist isn't there to tell you what to do or command you to make changes. They are a guiding force to offer questions and strategies to help you and your partner make choices together. If you and your partner want to stay together and work on strengthening your relationship, you can find a therapist who is trained to help you do so. 

The only exception to this may be if the therapist believes your life or another person’s life is in immediate danger. In the case of abuse, they may be required to report these behaviors, especially when children are involved. 

If you are facing or witnessing abuse of any kind, the National Domestic Violence Hotline is available 24/7 for support. Call 1-800-799-SAFE (7233) or text "START" to 88788. You can also use the online chat.

What the research says 

With all of these misconceptions surrounding therapy, some people may be skeptical of whether or not it can actually have an effect. 

However, research has demonstrated the effectiveness of therapy for a wide range of concerns. According to the American Psychiatric Association, research shows that most people who receive therapy experience relief from symptoms and better daily functioning, with around 75% of people who attend sessions finding some benefit from it.

The American Psychological Association (APA) also backs up the effectiveness of therapy, noting that it is highly effective for a range of mental health conditions, but may be underutilized due to stigma and lack of understanding. The APA also reports that studies have found that psychotherapy reduces disability, morbidity, and mortality, and it also improves work functioning

Reasons to attend therapy

In addition to therapy’s effectiveness, there are a variety of reasons why people may seek therapy and find it beneficial. Included below are just a few examples:

Structured guidance

Clients may enjoy the structured guidance that therapy can offer. Many therapists use strategies that have been tested through clinical trials and shown to be effective in treating symptoms of mental illness and other life concerns. If you don't know what to talk about in your session or need a push to get started, a therapist can ask you guided questions, lead you through activities, and teach you coping mechanisms. Some forms of therapy, like dialectical behavior therapy (DBT), have a clear structure that a therapist may use. For instance, while there can be some variation, DBT often involves a pre-assessment, clear goals, skills training in groups, and telephone crisis coaching. 

Expressing feelings

Many clients go to therapy to have the opportunity to identify, explore, address, and process their emotions in a nonjudgmental and supportive environment. Therapists abide by a code of ethics by the APA or American Counseling Association (ACA), depending on their title, so it can be a safe space for you to talk, process your feelings, and identify ways to move forward. In addition, you can know that the strategies and feedback your therapist gives you is based on research, experience, and expertise. 

Self-reflection and self-compassion 

Clients may find that therapy offers them a place to reflect on their experiences, actions, thought patterns, beliefs, and ideas. As they reflect on these areas in therapy, they may find more self-compassion and a feeling that they can make changes and improve their behaviors, if these are their goals. A therapist can offer exercises supporting this process, such as pros and cons charts, worksheets, and cognitive restructuring exercises. 

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Counseling options 

There are many reasons one might hesitate to seek help or feel unsure about starting therapy. For example, barriers to treatment can make finding a therapist difficult and deter people from asking for support. Barriers might include high-cost sessions or inconvenient office locations. 

In these cases, many people may find online counseling to be a convenient alternative, which can be done from any location with an internet connection and offer affordable pricing options. Online therapy through a platform like BetterHelp allows users to match with a licensed therapist online based on their unique needs. You can then have therapy sessions from wherever you have the internet—including the comfort of home. 

Studies also back up the effectiveness of online therapy. One research study examined the effectiveness of online treatment for individuals experiencing depression. The results showed that individuals who received the online therapy intervention experienced significantly reduced depression symptom severity

Takeaway

If you're wondering why therapy exists or are facing stigmas or misconceptions about counseling, it can be helpful to look at the statistics supporting therapy and the many types of concerns it has been found to be effective at treating.

If you're ready to get started, you can contact a therapist online or in your area for further guidance. Note that you can take therapy at your own pace—you can let your therapist know if you feel uncertain and ask them any questions you might have about their approach.  

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