A therapist’s retirement inspires an ode to mental health professionals

The COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated mental health issues in the United States and around the world, according to the World Health Organization and the American Psychological Association. Psychologists reported that their referrals nearly doubled from 2020 to 2021. Photo: Malte Müller/Getty Images

I just learned that my therapist of five years is retiring.

It probably sounds like a joke setup, but it’s not. If I had to crack a joke, which I was once told was a form of psychological deviation during a session, I would probably say something like, “Anyone who has had to listen to my millennial frustrations over the five years deserves a happy retirement.”

I am grateful to have access to mental health care through my insurance, which I know is not true for everyone. Living in San Francisco – or anywhere in the United States – in 2022, you see the results of a society that does not place enough emphasis on mental health care and access to it in intimate ways. Locally, there is suffering in the streets and self-medication. Nationally, we are confronted with it in the form of the mass shooting phenomenon and the ridiculous and false rhetoric of the gas wing of our culture.

There are so many times I wish the world could just collectively sit on the couch and work on some things.

I’ve always been a fan of the idea of ​​visits with a therapist as part of my emotional maintenance plan. Whether it’s the Golden Gate Bridge, our body or our psyche, I believe in maintenance and consulting experts. I’ve never understood why so many people think that seeking therapy is somehow a sign of weakness or that there’s some kind of mental toughness or courage that comes with internalizing your emotions. I don’t cut my own hair or do my own dentistry, so why wouldn’t I seek professional help for my mental health?

Lorraine Bracco stars as Dr. Melfi, a therapist, in “The Sopranos.” Picture: HBO

Over the past two and a half years of the pandemic, many people have found themselves living with new kinds of stresses and fears that have manifested themselves in different ways. In this first year of the COVID-19 pandemic alone, the global prevalence of anxiety and depression has increased by around 25%, according to a scientific note published by the World Health Organization in March. A 2021 survey from the American Psychological Association showed, unsurprisingly, that psychologists reported referrals nearly doubled from 2020, from 37% to 62%.

With my therapist retiring, it got me thinking about how little recognition mental health care providers at all levels receive. Because daily life needs and concerns don’t heal or improve in obvious ways, like a broken leg or physical illness, I think we struggle to recognize their impact. I’m also not sure that pop culture has ever accurately portrayed the benefits of therapy for life.

When you see therapy in movies and on TV, its success is usually demonstrated by a big “aha” moment where the person is pushed into a cathartic breakthrough (think the “It’s not your fault” scene in “Good Will Hunting”). It might happen for some people, but for most of us the work we do in session would be pretty boring conversations for an observer.

But that doesn’t mean the work isn’t essential.

Robin Williams (left) and Matt Damon in the movie ‘Good Will Hunting’. Williams plays Sean, a therapist trying to reach the brilliant but troubled Will, played by Damon. Photo: George Kraychyk

I’m not going to write about what my therapist and I have discussed for the past five years in a column (please, I’ll save that for a book), but I will say that I wouldn’t have done so well without our time together. The call to help people is obviously noble, but the call to Listen to people is particularly special.

I am grateful to everyone in the field of mental health care who has allowed us to walk through our stories.

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