Therapy session

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New class expectations, new after-school activities and responsibilities, and new thoughts about the future 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 it can be a lot to handle. According to experts, the best time to handle that stress is now. “If we don’t take care of our mental health, we may not be able to reach our goals, maintain good relationships, and function well in day-to-day situations,” says Dr. Chrissy Salley, a psychologist in New York who works with students of all ages. “Taking care of mental health is one of the best things someone can do.”

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 counselor, 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 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 who didn’t (Depression and Anxiety).

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

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

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 behaviors. 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 mental health 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—and worthwhile.Lots of teens report mental health issues—20 percent of 13- to 18-year-olds have a mental health condition, 11 percent have a mood disorder, and 8 percent battle anxiety, according to the National Alliance on Mental Illness. If you feel uncomfortable with the idea of going to see a therapist you’re not alone—and that’s OK, says Zachary Alti, a licensed social worker, psychotherapist, and professor at the Fordham University Graduate School of Social Service in New York. “Few people look forward to therapy, but students should be aware that therapy exists to help them, not to judge them,” he says. The process might not always be comfortable, but that doesn’t mean it’s not worth it. “I’d encourage students to keep an open mind and try it,” says Dr. Salley.

“Group therapy significantly helped me manage my anxiety, and it was comforting to see that I wasn’t alone.”
—Senior, Evergreen Park, Illinois

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

“Many adolescents tell me they’re reluctant to participate in therapy because they don’t want to talk about their feelings,” Dr. Salley says. 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. “Therapy should also be action oriented—a time to learn new skills for coping and figuring out ways to solve problems,” Dr. Salley says.

3. Seeing a therapist is like going to the gym—for your brain.“Therapy is like physical exercise,” says Alti. 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 “Therapy should be considered as important as going to the doctor for a regular checkup. It’s a way to get in touch with yourself and to be grounded enough to deal with issues that life presents before things feel like they’re too much to handle.” —Recent graduate, Egham, England4 It’s smart to see a therapist before things feel totally overwhelming.

But really, any time is a good time to go. Anxiety and depression are the most common reasons young people seek counseling, according to a 2016 annual report from the Center for Collegiate Mental Health. But 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. “There are a lot of pink flags before you get to red ones,” says Dr. Dana Crawford, an individual and family therapist in New York. “Keeping things from becoming extreme is always better.” In other words, don’t wait for an emergency to take care of your mental health. “When bad things do happen, mental health will protect against the impact of these unfortunate events,” adds Alti.

Student perspective

“Therapy is very helpful for me. Sometimes I just need to say things out loud to get over them. Getting the words out of my mouth is the hardest, but once I’ve said what I needed to say, I leave the therapy session feeling a lot better about my life.”
—Junior, Greensboro, North Carolina

5 Therapists can help you handle change.

Real talk: school is stressful. And figuring out how to balance schoolwork with your extracurriculars only gets trickier as you start thinking about college. “Even positive changes can be stressful,” says Dr. Salley. Luckily, therapists are particularly skilled at helping their clients deal with these transitions. “Having someone to talk to can be helpful, especially as you encounter new situations and people,” she says. While you’re dealing with a new set of responsibilities and expectations (everything from thinking about college applications to taking on your first part-time job), a therapist can help you pinpoint how all the changes are affecting 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, says Dr. Crawford. “You would never go to the store, try on a pair of jeans, and say, ‘Oh, those don’t fit, I guess I won’t wear jeans.’ You would keep trying jeans until you found the right fit,” says Dr. Crawford. Same goes for therapists.

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 is willing to listen to your goals for therapy and help you develop them. Read on for more on how to find a therapist.

  • 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, people of color, or those who have 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, says Dr. Crawford. “You want to know that you can talk to your therapist about all parts of who you are.”)
  • What are your beliefs about how people change?
  • What is 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 with your school counselor—they can offer you some help and also refer you to a therapist in your community. Talk to your parent about what might be covered under your family’s insurance. You can also look for therapists who charge on a sliding scale—which may be an affordable option if you need to pay on your own.

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

“Therapy can be useful by helping people acquire a better understanding of themselves and develop healthy habits,” says Dr. Salley. For example, if you want to try out for the soccer team, but that means you’ll have to give up the volunteer position you love, a therapist can help you identify what you really value and then make decisions based on that. “It can be helpful to talk to someone who’s objective and not a friend to bounce your experiences and feelings off of,” says Dr. Crawford. “A therapist’s only investment is for you to be your best self.”

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. “Problems that are unaddressed remain problems,” says Dr. Crawford. “When you’re ready for something different in your life, it can change. Therapy can help you create the future you want.”

Student perspective “My therapist is extremely kind and listens to what I have to say, no matter the topic. She’s given me a lot of coping mechanisms that definitely have helped me.” —Junior, Brainerd, Minnesota

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 parents or someone at school about what you’re struggling with. “A therapist is not allowed to do this unless the student poses a threat to themselves or others,” says Alti. “A therapist’s effectiveness is dependent on maintaining trust.” Unless they believe you’re in imminent danger (e.g., at risk of being seriously harmed or harming yourself or others), they won’t share what you say. However, because you’re probably still a minor, you may want to talk with your therapist early on about what types of information they would feel obligated to tell your parent.

In short, everyone can benefit from talking to a therapist. “In the same way that everyone can benefit from going to the dentist, sometimes therapy is just a routine cleaning,” says Dr. Crawford. “Sometimes it’s just a time to reflect on where you are and where you want to go.” 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.

Student perspective

“Therapy was a good way to talk through anything weighing on my mind. My therapist was very understanding, kind, and, of course, confidential. I would recommend counseling to everyone.”
—Junior, Elizabethtown, Pennsylvania

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Article sources

Zachary Alti, LMSW, clinical professor, Fordham University Graduate School of Social Service; psychotherapist in New York City.

Dana Crawford, PhD, individual and family therapist, New York.

Chrissy Salley, PhD, pediatric psychologist, New York.

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