This piece is part of HuffPost’s international series on therapy. It originally appeared on HuffPost U.K.
For the last two years, Iain Ross has seen a therapist regularly. Not because a doctor referred him, but because he sought out help himself. And he’s not the only one.
In the U.K., therapy is more popular than ever. There were 1.2 million referrals to the National Health Service’s improved access to psychological therapies (IAPT) program ― a service that offers talk therapy ― in 2014-2015, according to data provided by the NHS to HuffPost U.K. There were almost half a million more referrals (1.6 million in total) in 2018-2019. That’s not even taking into account the huge numbers attending private therapy.
Brits might be known for their stiff upper lip and “keep calm and carry on” mentality, but data clearly shows attitudes are shifting and therapy is becoming more normalized. In recent years, mental health has dominated conversations in the media and it’s become the subject of multiple charity and social media campaigns. Countless celebrities have also spoken candidly about these issues, particularly the Royal Family, who launched their Heads Together mental health initiative to get people talking.
And aside from talking, people, like Ross, are also taking control. Data shared with HuffPost U.K. suggests more people than ever are reading the signs that something isn’t right and taking it upon themselves to get help. In 2014-2015, 39.1% of overall referrals to the NHS’s IAPT program were self-referrals rather than through a primary doctor. And in 2018-2019, self-referrals rose to a staggering 70.2%, according to the NHS.
Ross first sought help when he realized his relationship with his boyfriend was being impacted by his mental health struggles. The 27-year-old from Leeds decided enough was enough.
“I had experienced quite severe highs and lows, for as long as I can remember really, but eventually got to a point where I knew it was taking a toll on my relationship, my work and my health,” he said.
He recalled a former colleague had spoken openly about having therapy so he asked them for a recommendation. The next thing he knew, he was sitting in an introductory session of a private clinic. “I immediately knew that it was something I should have done a long time ago,” he said.
More people like Ross are seeking help from counselors or psychotherapists compared to five years ago, according to the British Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy (BACP). Yet statistics show men are still less likely to reach out for help than women, and those aged 60 and over are far less likely to go to therapy compared to the younger generations. Jo Holmes, BACP’s children, young people and families lead, is concerned about this generational gap.
“The older they are, the less likely they are to access therapy,” she said, noting the older population could be dealing with huge events, such as the loss of a lifelong partner or child, or their own health issues.
There are many reasons why someone might go to speak to a professional — it could be to seek support navigating grief, depression, low mood, anxiety or stress at work. It might be to do with relationship troubles, post traumatic stress disorder, disordered eating, or even because they’re not sleeping at night. The list is endless. So too are the different types of therapy you can access, ranging from art and behavioral therapies right through to psychoanalysis and relationship therapy.
“I had experienced quite severe highs and lows, for as long as I can remember really, but eventually got to a point where I knew it was taking a toll on my relationship, my work and my health.”
Ross started having weekly behavioral therapy sessions over the course of a year, where he explored how learned behavior, habits and relationships affected his mental health. These became monthly from April this year, when he felt like he had more of a handle on things.
Initially he found the prospect of therapy “terrifying” because speaking about his feelings was so foreign to him ― something he’s since realized derives from his upbringing. However, he eased into it. “I can genuinely say without exaggeration that it has changed my life.”
The sessions cost him £50 (they recently went up from £45) ― which is approximately $55 ― and he recognized that he’s very lucky to be able to afford it. At first he questioned whether it was worth it, but said, “I wouldn’t think twice about paying that for a meal out, or going for drinks, or a gym membership ― and why was my mental health any less important?”
Vivienne Dandy, 26, from Birmingham, and Surena Chande, 28, from London, also self-referred themselves to a therapist through the NHS and were thrilled by the results, despite having very different experiences.
Dandy, a blogger, referred herself and had a phone assessment within a few days. Her first appointment, however, wasn’t until six weeks later ― this is despite pressure from mental health charities for NHS England to offer therapy to all who need it within 28 days of requesting a referral.
Dandy suspects she was struggling with postnatal depression at the time, but said she hadn’t been formally diagnosed. By the time the first therapy session came around she believes she was “through the worst of it.”
“The counselor said it sounded like I was in recovery,” she said. “I had two more sessions just to ensure that I was OK, before signing off from their services.”
The 26-year-old had cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), which aims to help people manage problems by changing the way they think and behave. Yet despite the wait, Dandy insists therapy had a positive effect.
“Voicing how I felt to a stranger who validated my thoughts made me feel so empowered,” she said. “The therapist focused on challenging negative thoughts which is something that I have struggled with for years, where self-esteem is concerned.” She still uses the coping mechanisms to this day and says she would recommend therapy to anyone.
“Voicing how I felt to a stranger who validated my thoughts made me feel so empowered.”
While certain therapies might work well for some individuals, it’s not the same story for everyone. According to Holmes, most people will know within minutes of a therapy session if it isn’t right for them.
Surena Chande was diagnosed with generalized anxiety disorder at 15 and, after years struggling throughout school and university, she later developed depression. Chande was originally placed in a CBT group session, but she soon realized it wasn’t the right therapy for her.
“The best way I could describe it was trying to fix a huge crack with a small plaster,” she explained. “I had a lot I had been through and wanted to get to the root of it and unpack it all before figuring out coping methods.”
Chande soon stopped attending the group sessions and after a few months, her mother was tragically hit by a car and hospitalized. It was at this point, with her mental health spiraling, that Chande was offered six one-to-one counseling sessions through NHS Talking Therapies.
“It couldn’t have come at a better time, and I stand by the fact that without those [sessions] I don’t know if I’d be here today,” she said.
“While I know I won’t be ‘cured’ or absolutely fine going forward, I’ve already noticed major changes I’ve been making in day-to-day life,” she added. “You realize a lot of the answers are within you, but speaking to someone about everything that’s going on helps you figure it out.”
Given that different therapy options work for different people, Holmes, who was once a counselor herself, advised anyone considering therapy to take a step back and think about what it is that you want to change in your life. Next, find the confidence to ask for help ― this can be one of the biggest battles you’ll face.
It’s important to note that therapy will open the door to some issues in your life that might be difficult to relive or talk about. So you need to ask yourself: Are you ready to do that? That readiness is key to successful therapy, Holmes said, as is connection with the counselor or therapist. You need to feel safe, not judged, and if you don’t feel like that, you should find a new therapist. It’s also important to note that people with severe mental illness will work best with a therapist with relevant and specialized experience.
Holmes stressed that therapists cannot provide all the answers or solutions to problems. What they can do is work with you in order to explore what coping strategies or changes might work for you.
Jason Dexter, 30, from Sheffield, England, was having huge panic attacks and eventually reached crisis point two years ago. At first, he tried to access therapy on the NHS but was told by doctors there would be a 12-week waiting time. He knew deep down he couldn’t wait that long and, in the end, found a local private clinic in Sheffield where he began a type of therapy focused on behavior processing and crisis management.
“I struggled heavily with understanding how I fit within society, and the type of person I was,” said Dexter, who lost his mom at just 18. “I kind of lost my identity during my crisis months.”
In the past two months, Dexter has transitioned to EMDR (eye movement desensitization and reprocessing) therapy and describes each £50 (or $55) session as “a savior.” Going to therapy has helped him work through issues but also re-process past trauma.
That’s not to say therapy hasn’t had its downfalls, however ― initially he found therapy to be “useless” and battled against it a lot. EMDR has also meant a rise in the number of panic attacks he has, as he navigates some of his past trauma.
His advice to others who want to get the best out of therapy is simple. “Be honest, open and truthful,” he said. “It took me a little while to fully open up but you’ll get there. And take your time, nothing changes overnight.”
You Should See Someone is a HuffPost Life series that will teach you everything you need to know about doing therapy. We’re giving you informative, no-B.S. stories on seeking mental health help: how to do it, what to expect, and why it matters. Because taking care of your mind is just as important as taking care of your body. Find all of our coverage here and share your stories on social with the hashtag #DoingTherapy.