Therapy session

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New class expectations, new living situations, and navigating newfound independence can give us all the feels—from super psyched to super stressed. Even if you’re loving your student life, dealing with all the stressors that come with university can be a lot to handle. According to experts, the best time to handle that stress is now. “Therapy can help you develop specific skills that can help you manage problems better in the future,” says Dr. Lynne Robinson, Associate Professor at the School of Health and Human Performance at Dalhousie University in Nova Scotia. “Being mentally healthy means a happier, more satisfying life.”

Now really is the time to start tuning into your mental health—the majority of mental health issues appear to begin between the ages of 14 and 24, according to a review of the World Health Organization World Mental Health surveys and other research (Current Opinion in Psychiatry, 2007). But help is available. Along with methods like mindfulness and meditation, talking to a therapist (such as a counsellor, psychologist, or psychiatrist) can be a super-effective way to manage any mental health issue you may be facing or just a way to get extra support during times of stress, challenge, celebration, or change.

There’s a ton of research on how effective therapy really is—a 2015 meta-analysis of 15 studies of students with depression found that outcomes were nearly 90 percent better for those who received therapeutic treatment than for those in control groups, most of whom received no treatment (Depression and Anxiety).

Girl with "believe in your dream" written on her hand

One of the most common and effective therapies is cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT), a short-term, goal-oriented therapy where a pro helps you deal with specific problems practically.

The goal of CBT is to help you change or reframe certain thought processes—the idea is that by changing your attitude about something, you can change your behaviours. For example, if you think something like, “I’m terrible at chemistry, so I know I’m going to fail this test—there’s no use studying,” you probably won’t ace your test. CBT can help you shift your thinking to something more like, “I know chemistry is really hard for me, but studying will help me do better.”

And it works. There’s strong evidence that this therapeutic technique can help you handle just about anything you might have going on, according to a 2012 analysis of over 200 studies on CBT published in Cognitive Therapy and Research. The researchers found that CBT was effective for people struggling with anxiety, bulimia, anger issues, stress, and a number of other issues.

OK, so we know that therapy is an essential and effective tool for keeping your mental health at its peak, but making that first appointment can feel intimidating. It doesn’t have to be. Our experts break down the therapy basics so you can embrace whatever you need to feel your best. Here’s what the pros want you to know.

1 Seeing a therapist is totally common —more people are doing it than you think.

Surveys show it’s not out of the ordinary to see a therapist—35 percent of students across Canada have attended therapy before, according to a recent Student Health 101 study. If you feel uncomfortable with the idea of going to see a therapist, you’re not alone—and that’s totally OK. “There’s still a stigma and lack of understanding of mental health issues, which makes it even more difficult to seek help,” says Deborah Epstein, a registered psychotherapist at a private practice in Toronto. The process might not always be comfortable, but that doesn’t mean it’s not worth it. “For students who often feel alone or feel they have no one to turn to, going for therapy can help [them] get the support [they] need, and there’s no harm in trying to improve things,” says Epstein.

2 Therapy is more than talking through feelings— it’s about building skills and solving problems.

Many students are reluctant to participate in therapy because they don’t like talking about their feelings—again, that’s totally normal. But going to therapy isn’t just about talking about how you feel; it’s also about walking away with real tools you can use in your life. “Therapists are able to guide you to real resources that are based on research that you can use to help you cope,” says Dr. Robinson. “They can also help you develop effective skills to be able to cope with challenges in your life.”

3. Seeing a therapist is like going to the gym... for your brain.

“In therapy, you can find personal strengths you may not have been aware of,” says Epstein. Just like hitting the gym is good for everyone’s physical health—not just those with diabetes or heart disease—seeing a therapist can benefit everyone’s mental health.

Student perspective: “We go to the doctor when we’re physically ill, so it makes sense to go if we aren’t doing well mentally or emotionally. The rewards from therapy are so great that it’s certainly worth the effort to try.” —Second-year graduate student, University of Victoria, British Columbia

4 It’s smart to see a therapist before things feel totally overwhelming.

But really, any time is a good time to go. While anxiety and depression are still the most common reasons students seek counselling, according to a 2016 annual report from the Center for Collegiate Mental Health, you don’t have to be in the midst of a crisis or feel like you’re nearing a breakdown to see a pro—seeing a therapist can be helpful even when things are all good. “As a person’s mental health gets worse, it can be harder to reach out for help, as there can be wait-lists, so the person may not be seen as quickly as they need,” says Dr. Robinson. In other words, don’t wait for an emergency to take care of your mental health.

Quiz: Do I need therapy?

Student perspective

“Even if you’re not in crisis mode, you can learn more about yourself and how and why you respond in certain situations—and how to be more aware of being a healthy and wholesome you.”
—Fifth-year student, Kwantlen Polytechnic University, British Columbia

5 Therapists can help you handle change.

Real talk: University is full of huge life changes. “It’s a significant life transition,” says Epstein. “It’s the first time some of you are truly independent and making decisions on your own.” Luckily, therapists are particularly skilled at helping their clients deal with these transitions. “Having someone to talk to can help you normalize your feelings,” says Epstein. While you’re dealing with a new set of responsibilities and expectations (everything from picking the right major to sorting through awkward roommate issues), a therapist can help you pinpoint how all the changes are impacting you and sort through the onslaught of emotions that everyone feels during this time.

6 Finding the right therapist is like finding the right pair of jeans.

Therapists aren’t one-size-fits-all—sometimes you have to try a few before you find the right fit. Don’t get turned off if your first therapy appointment isn’t super helpful—if something feels uncomfortable, listen to your gut, but don’t give up. “You have to feel that your therapist is a good listener, is empathic, and is knowledgeable about your presenting issues,” says Epstein. “You have to trust them and feel that they ‘get’ you. If you don’t, you should find someone who does.”

Finding that fit with a therapist is just as important for the outcome as the actual therapeutic technique, according to findings presented in Psychotherapy Relationships That Work (Oxford University Press, 2004). The research analysis found that three key things had a measurable positive impact on the outcome of individual therapy: 1) the strength of your collaborative relationship with your therapist—aka are you on the same page and making goals for your treatment together?; 2) your therapist’s ability to empathize or see where you’re coming from; and 3) the degree to which you and your therapist outline goals and reevaluate them together.

In other words, to get the most out of a therapy session, take the time to find someone you feel like you’re on the same page with, who gets you, and who’s willing to listen to your goals for therapy and help you develop them.

  • What types of therapy are you trained in?
  • What issues do you specialize in?
  • What populations do you specialize in? (While all therapists take on different types of clients, some specialize in specific groups such as working with LGBTQ+ people, racial or ethnic minorities, or those who’ve been marginalized in some way.)
  • How do you invite all aspects of your client into the room? (It’s important to know how your therapist will address all aspects of your culture.)
  • What are your beliefs about how people change?
  • What’s your goal for ending therapy? (Some therapists believe therapy is an ongoing thing that you never really graduate from, while others see it as a tool to resolve a specific challenge. Make sure their goals line up with yours, and if not, ask if you can redefine them together.)

To find a therapist, start on campus—most schools offer a certain number of free counselling sessions through their counselling or psychological services. If your school doesn’t offer counselling or you’d rather see someone off campus, your Student Health Services Department can provide a list of off-campus options, which are usually given at a reduced cost for students. “Most campuses in Canada have supplementary insurance to cover the services of allied health professionals, but not all,” says Dr. Pierre-Paul Tellier, Family Physician, CLCS de Côte-des-Neiges at McGill University in Quebec.

Check with your insurance provider to see whether you need a referral to see a psychologist or counsellor. If so, you may need to make an appointment with your primary care provider or the student counselling centre to ask for one. Once you have the referral (if needed), you can seek out a therapist in a number of ways:

  • Ask friends and family members if they have a therapist they recommend.
  • Find out if your school counselling centre has a list of recommended providers.
  • Visit the Canadian Psychological Association.
  • Call your insurance company or use their online services to find a list of therapists who are covered by your plan. If you get a personal recommendation from someone, you’ll also need to check that they’re covered under your insurance plan.

Once you have a name or a list of names and you’ve checked that the providers are covered by your insurance plan, call each therapist and leave a message to ask if they’re accepting new patients and to call you back with their available hours. When you hear back from the therapist, you may want to discuss what you’re looking to get out of treatment, what days and times you’re available to meet, and what their fees are—confirm that they take your insurance (it never hurts to double check this)—and ask about their training and make sure they’re licensed. Sometimes it can take a few tries to find someone whose schedule (and personality) works with yours, but don’t let that deter you.

7 A therapist can help you identify—and crush—your goals.

“Therapy can help you identify the kind of person you want to be and whether what you’re doing is getting you closer to your valued self or not,” says Dr. Robinson. For example, if you have trouble getting up in time to make that optional early-morning lecture, but then you beat yourself up about missing it, a therapist can help you determine what you really value and then help you make decisions based on that.

Once you’ve identified what’s really important to you, a therapist can help give you the tools to make your value-driven goals a reality. In terms of the example above for instance, “A student might be missing classes because the course is one they’re taking in an area they don’t value—so they may want to consider whether it’s the right course or not,” says Dr. Robinson. “On the other hand, [focusing] on what you value (e.g., being a person who finishes what’s started, being a person who understands how human beings function from a complete perspective) may help you become more committed to taking steps, which you can then identify to help yourself get to the lectures, even though it may be difficult.”

Student perspective: “Sometimes it takes an outside opinion and professional help to guide us in the right direction so we can regain our mental wellness. We’re often burdened with feeling that we need to do or fix things ourselves, but it’s OK to get help.” —Third-year graduate student, Wilfrid Laurier University, Ontario

8 What happens in therapy stays in therapy.

You may be worried that all that talking might get out or that your therapist might tell your advisor or RA about what you’re struggling with. “A therapist must adhere to strict rules around confidentiality—e.g. they’re not allowed to share information with anyone without consent,” Epstein says. Bottom line: Unless they believe you’re in imminent danger (e.g., at risk of being seriously harmed or harming yourself or others), they can’t share what you say. “If you’re concerned about who will have access to your confidential information, this is something you should discuss with your therapist,” Epstein says.

In short, everyone can benefit from talking to a therapist. “Research has shown that just having someone to talk to, a source of support, has important benefits for all of us,” says Dr. Robinson. ”By talking about your challenges with someone who really listens to you, you’re usually able to come up with some solutions that work for you.”

Whether you’re wrestling with anxiety and depression or mildly stressed about finding a summer internship, seeing a therapist can help—even if it’s just for a few sessions. “Quite often, one or two visits can be enough for a student to be able to cope with their challenges,” Dr. Robinson says.

Student perspective

“We pay people to cut our hair, tune up our vehicles, or mow our grass, but not to tend to one of the most important things—our mental health! We need to change the perception/stigma that exists around therapy. I think it can benefit everyone.”
—Fourth-year student, Wilfrid Laurier University, Ontario

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Article sources

Deborah Epstein, MEd, Registered Psychotherapist, private practice, Toronto.

Lynne Robinson , PhD, RPsych, Associate Professor, School of Health and Human Performance, Dalhousie University, Nova Scotia; Fellow, Association of Psychologists of Nova Scotia.

Pierre-Paul Tellier, Family Physician, CLCS de Côte-des-Neiges at McGill University in Quebec.

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