Visiting a Mental Health Professional for the First Time

although asking for help can feel uncomfortable,

you deserve a space to exist safely

When things aren't going so well

If you’re not one to ask for help, looking for a mental health professional probably feels like a big step. It’s so important to take that step and to get help if things are not going well, so thank you for being here and learning how to navigate that.

A mental health professional can help you work through whatever is troubling you and will work with you to find solutions to your problems. Talking with a mental health professional might leave you feeling less alone and like a load has been taken off your shoulders.

Why might someone see a mental health professional?

  • Life is feeling overwhelming and you need someone who can relate to you about it
  • Personal hygiene and other care needs are barely making it on your to-do list
  • A major event in your life happened that is impacting your day to day activities in a negative way and just won’t go away
  • You’re experiencing chronic suicidal thoughts, depression, or anxiety
  • There’s instability in your life and you need someone to talk to about it
  • You suspect you have a mental health disorder
  • Relationship issues are consuming a lot of your energy
  • You are concerned about a friend or family member and want to talk with someone who has more expertise

How You Might Be Feeling or Questions You Might Have

Before your first visit to a mental health professional, you might be experiencing a lot of emotions and have a lot of questions.

You might feel:

  • Worried or scared
  • Embarrassed
  • Unsure

You might be asking yourself:

  • What will happen at the session?
  • How will I tell the mental health professional what’s wrong?
  • What if the problem isn’t important enough and I’m just wasting the person’s time?
  • What if the person thinks I’m really strange?
  • What if my problem is embarrassing?
  • Will the mental health professional tell my parents?
  • Should I just deal with this by myself?

Experiencing any of these feelings and asking yourself these questions is not at all uncommon. It is important to realize that mental health professionals are used to dealing with all sorts of issues, and that no problem is too big or small. Every problem is important. If your issue is affecting your day to day routine and is troubling you, this is reason enough to talk to a helping professional.

What might happen at the first session?

Talking to a mental health professional can feel pretty scary. Sometimes it is really hard to say the things you are feeling because you might be worried that the mental health professional might judge you. In the first session, it is likely that the mental health professional will want to get some general information about you. 

They might ask questions about:

  • How you have been feeling lately
  • What’s been happening in your life
  • Your past
  • How things are with your family and at school
  • Your physical health

You might also have to fill out a questionnaire or survey that will help the mental health professional understand what is present in your life right now.

The reason a mental health professional will ask you all these questions is so they can better understand what is going on in your life. It is important to be honest and try to say as much as you can so that the mental health professional can get a better understanding of your situation and how you feel.

Sometimes people feel concerned because their counselor or therapist doesn’t give them a diagnosis right away, but this is not at all unusual. A mental health professional will not give you a quick diagnosis because they’ll want to have a really good understanding of your emotional state and what can make you happier and healthier.

After your first session, your mental health professional will probably talk to you about what you would like to do from there. They might suggest that you come back and visit regularly, but this decision is ultimately up to you.

After Speaking With a Counselor

After speaking with a counselor you might have mixed reactions. You might feel calmer and understand your concerns more clearly, but it’s also not uncommon to feel confused, stressed, or sad after you have spoken to your counselor. This could be because the session has brought up some scary emotions. It might take a number of visits with your counselor to deal with this stuff. If this is the case, it’s a good idea to talk to your counselor about your reactions and the best way to manage them.

Tips To Getting the Most Out of Your Sessions

Here are some general things you might want to keep in mind if you decide to see a mental health professional. You can apply these tips to your first visit and every visit after that.

Write Ideas Down Ahead of Time

To be sure you make the most of your time with them, write down a list of topics, things that have been happening lately, or concerns you have so that you don’t forget to share those during the session. It might also be good to note what HAS been working in your life lately. 

Ask Lots of Questions

It’s pretty standard to “interview” your counselor during the first session, asking them what they specialize in, what type of therapy do they do, who their ideal client is, etc. It’s important you find the best counselor for you.

Don’t be afraid to ask questions, especially if you don’t understand why the counselor or therapist is asking you to talk about certain things or try different skills for managing your symptoms. Knowledge is power!

Go Into Your Session With a Positive Mindset

Keeping an open mind and positive attitude will help you get the most possible out of your counseling session. If we’re not careful, sometimes our negative thoughts and assumptions can create self-fulfilling prophecies where we end up self-sabotaging ourselves unknowingly. Try going in with no expectations. You might surprise yourself!

Don't Be Thrown Off By Them Taking Notes

Your counselor or therapist will probably take notes while you are talking. Don’t be put off by this. Often a mental health professional will write down things like names of people and events so they can talk about it with you later. They might also write down specific things you’ve said that are important.

If you feel uncomfortable with your mental health professional writing things, you can ask to see the notes or talk to your counselor about it.

Understand Your Confidentiality Rights

Client confidentiality is an ethical code that mental health professionals should adhere to. This means that your mental health professional should not disclose information about your sessions without your consent. 

One universal exception to this is if the mental health professional is genuinely concerned that you are at risk of harm or harming someone else. There are other state-specific exceptions about what a mental health professional can and cannot keep confidential, and the age at which a client’s parent or legal guardian is no longer entitled by law to information.

It’s best to ask your mental health professional about their confidentiality policy and state law and regulations before your sessions start. In most cases, this is something that your mental health professional will bring up as part of an initial meeting. Check out the Confidentiality article for more info.

Be Honest With Them

Your mental health professional will try to help you feel better, and you need to work with the mental health professional and open up about how you are feeling and the things that are causing you stress and pain. It’s okay if you are having trouble finding the right words. This isn’t unusual. Sometimes a counselor or therapist will use writing or drawing, or other art such as making a collage or painting a picture to help you tell your story.

When you can be honest about where you’re at or what you’re going through, you can get the most out of your sessions with them. It’s okay if you need to ask to take things slower. You can choose what pace you want to take in doing the work.

Don't Be Afraid To Change Mental Health Professionals

Sometimes you won’t “click” with the first person you see (or the second, or maybe even the third). If that’s the case and you’ve given the relationship some time, it might be a good idea to try seeing another person. Just because it didn’t work with one, doesn’t mean it won’t work with another. Keep trying.

If you find this keeps happening, try doing research on the clients they work with (race, sexuality, gender, disorders, experiences, etc) and what their therapeutic style is. Strength-based talk therapy is a great way of finding validation and affirmation where they look at your strengths rather than focus on your flaws. There’s a style out there for everyone.

Try Not To Be Afraid of Your Therapist or Counselor

Remember that your mental health professional wants to help you. While it can be intimidating to trust someone new or feel safe in sharing your story with someone else, they are there specifically to hold space for you and help you feel safe. It’s okay to be vulnerable.

Also, you can disagree with them and question things if you don’t feel comfortable with their suggestions or feedback. You are an equal collaborator of your healing. 

Acknowledgements: This article was partially developed by youth and staff for us.ReachOut.com

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