Our ‘New You’ series is all about grabbing 2021 by the horns and making this a year of inspired action instead of fearful reaction. However, many of us have come out of 2020 with varying degrees of shellshock. For some of us, in order to move forward, we might need to first take stock of where things are at right now. One possible way to do this is by seeking professional help.
So, if you’ve been thinking about getting some support, help or therapy, but haven’t quite made that step yet, then this read is for you. Let’s do away with stereotypes and stigma, and find out why therapy just might be the right step towards a ‘New You’.
Growing up as a budding psychologist
From a very young age, Jessica Valentine knew she was going to be a psychologist. By the time she was 13 her parents had divorced. Jessica’s empathy deepened and she became aware of other kids in similar situations. She keenly sensed and identified with what they were feeling, and would reach out to help. Her emotional intelligence beguiled her age. She graduated with a degree in Psychology at the particularly young age of 20, and immediately set about working as a substitute university teacher.
Helping adults and children experiencing mental health problems
Moving from her native USA to the UK provided an opportunity for a different pathway – a chance to establish her own business, Brighton Mental Health & Wellness Centre. For the first time, Jessica began actively working as a Chartered Counselling Psychologist. For over 16 years now, she has helped support adults, families and children with depression, anxiety, anger management, stress, body dysmorphia, self-harm and a suite of mental health conditions. Jessica does this both from her practice as well as online (the latter, obviously, during COVID-19 lockdowns). We sat down virtually with Jessica for a chat about why more of us are turning to therapy, how it works and why it can be so beneficial.
Jessica, can you start by telling us what it is you enjoy about being a psychologist?
Originally I taught psychology to students rather than offering therapy and, whilst a good teacher always keeps learning as an active therapist, I am able to build a connection with people so that we can learn and grow together. And challenge each other! Sometimes it can work both ways. I really love hearing people’s stories, I find everyone interesting and fascinating. I also deeply believe in what I am doing. You have to, otherwise how can you expect others to believe it? When I work with someone and help to spark insight that results in an ‘aha’ moment, it’s incredibly rewarding.
What is the purpose of therapy?
I’m a happiness finder. Everyone’s end goal is to feel good and happy, right?
Why do people come to you? Why do they need therapy?
Overall, people seek to feel normal and, ultimately, happy. It’s that simple. They might be stressed, have trauma, be stuck in a negative holding pattern; all manner of reasons. But when you break it down, they just want to get through that to find normality and happiness.
It’s interesting because whilst people will all have their own personal experiences,often what I find is there are underlying themes we all share.
Lockdown and mental health
Take lockdown, for instance. When the first wave commenced, most people who came to see me experienced feelings of being scared and worried. The second stage I saw a lot of sadness. Now we’re here at the start of the New Year, and the overarching sentiment is, sadly, one of hopelessness. When something like this happens, I have to re-examine my approach to things. I am usually working towards an end goal of happiness. But with this, I have to take stock and say, “OK. I hear you. And you know what? We might have to sit in this sensation for a bit longer. It isn’t the time to try and find the silver lining. So, rather than look towards happiness right now, what can we do to work through a sense of hopelessness?”.
You touch on some emotions a lot of us are experiencing during lockdown. Is anxiety a bad thing?
Anxiety doesn’t always have to be negative. On the contrary, it is an evolved survival skill going back to when we always had to be on alert. However, for many of us in the Western world, we no longer need to be like that 24/7. People need someone to tell them to stop and breathe, they are in a safe place and they will be ok. To a degree, that’s a lot of what I do in the initial stages when I am getting to know my clients. Often anxiety can be a sign that change is needed. But, of course, change is uncomfortable for so many of us.
I don’t want my sessions to bring anxiety or oppression. Sometimes it’s good to lighten the load and ask them how their online virtual dating is going!
What are the signs someone might need therapy?
It’s important to say that sometimes people don’t see the signs. Those around them do. I once had a friend in my twenties who stopped me mid conversation and said, “Do you know, I think maybe you should talk to a professional about this”. So, even someone trained and qualified might miss the signs! But some of the classics include:
- Not working up to your potential
- Feeling stagnate
- Getting yourself into bad habits
- Involved in toxic relationships
- Feeling low or as one of my child clients says, “feeling existential”
- Being in a rut
For those of us who have only seen therapy in Hollywood films, how does it work?
Well, every psychologist will be unique and take their own approach. Mine is very much tailored around the client. I don’t impose a minimum number or frequency of visits, for example. We go with the flow of what feels right for them.
Normally the first session is all about getting to know the client. I explore their health, lifestyle and history. We have a really thorough look. From that point on, it all comes down to what the client is dealing with, and what will work best for them. Some like strategy. Others just want to talk and be heard. Some want me to talk while they do the listening. Others want to philosophise. Some want answers. Others seek direction. You get the idea…
So do people come to you themselves, or are they recommended?
I get a lot of people referred to me by BUPA. Sometimes people will come to me and say that their partner or child or friend urged them to try therapy. When that happens, my immediate thought in fact goes to the partner, child or friend. I wonder if they probably need it just as much, if not moreso.
I am American and I think we’ve collectively always had a healthy regard for therapy. We are open to talking and baring our emotions. We enjoy trying things and we’re not restrictive. Perhaps here in the UK things were a little slow in terms of breaking down stigma. Certainly, when I first arrived, I think there were more reservations than there are now. Definitely there was a stigma around taking medication for mental health issues. That was organically changing, sure. However, I think COVID-19 really fast-tracked different and more positive attitudes to therapy. It’s important to talk. The more we talk, the more we hear, the more we normalise.
How do we find the right therapist?
Firstly, know that you have a choice. You don’t have to commit to a particular therapist just because you’ve had a single introductory session with them. I certainly would not impose that on any of my clients. Before you start looking, firstly ask yourself some questions:
- What are my symptoms?
- Am I going to respond better to a male or female?
- Do I need to see this person face to face, or can I do this remotely?
- What are their qualifications?
- What is their experience and, perhaps, their particular expertise?
- What techniques do they use?
You might even want to call them first and hear their voice. Do you like it? It’s an important reaction to take on board! Trust your intuition.
It’s one thing to know something in you is not right. It’s another thing to actually do something about it. Would you say that’s true?
More often than not, my clients know what is wrong and they know what they need to do. But we are all pulled by emotions, and the power of those emotions can be incredibly potent! When someone makes a positive insight, I immediately reinforce it.
We make psychology complex, but it’s actually not. It’s about being kind and positive. At the end of the day, not everyone will make it to the point they want to get to. And we humans can be so quick to criticise and judge. However, I believe strongly that when people come to see me, there is a reason. The universe is sending them to me for a good reason, and I trust in that.
When do you know therapy is working?
You start to really search for the answers inside you. People often become really curious and want to explore more and more. A great indication is when you are no longer triggered by something that would normally set you off. For example, when someone is mean to you and you don’t react. Doing nothing is success – you’re in a very good place.