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Deciding Whether to Use Self-help or Professional Help

Mark Dombeck, Ph.D.

It’s critical to recognize that some problems and issues are more appropriately treated by professionals than through self-help means. You should seek professional help whenever you find yourself in one of the following situations:

  • Acute Danger. You should seek professional help immediately if you find yourself in an unsafe living situation or relationship (perhaps where you are being sexually, physically or verbally abused), or if you are experiencing thoughts or urges to harm yourself or to harm someone else. If you are being abused, remove yourself from the abusive situation (e.g., leave the house or apartment) and call the most appropriate crisis service (such as your local rape crisis number or domestic violence shelter number. Call 911 (or equivalent emergency telephone service) if you can't think of anyone better to call. If you are feeling suicidal (you want to kill yourself), or homicidal (you want to kill someone else) call 911, your local mental health crisis telephone number, or your local police or sheriff’s emergency number. The professionals who answer the phone should be able to help you stay safe and find appropriate crisis counseling or treatment for you. If your issue can wait (if it does not put you or another person in immediate danger), call your local crisis hotline, domestic abuse hotline, community mental (or behavioral) health center, therapist, counselor, psychiatrist or psychologist, and make an appointment to see a professional as soon as is possible who can help you to cope. If you need emergency medical attention, you can go to your local hospital emergency room.

  • Hallucinations. If you experience hallucinations (meaning that you hear voices, see things or smell odors that others don’t hear, see or smell), seek help from a professional therapist, psychologist or counselor. You should also seek out the help of a medical professional, such as a psychiatrist, to discuss the possibility of medication. Medication is the only proven means of lessening or stopping hallucinations.

  • Delusions. If you have delusions (meaning that you have ideas, perceptions or thoughts that don’t make any sense to others you share them with), seek help from a professional therapist, psychologist or counselor, and see a psychiatrist to discuss the possibility of medication which can help lessen or stop your delusions. You won't be able to generate a good self-help plan if you are delusional, because your judgment will be suspect.

  • Respected Opinions. If a person you trust tells you to seek help for a mental health issue or problem, listen carefully and seriously consider that there may be some good reason why they have recommended that you take this course of action. Contact a therapist, counselor, psychiatrist or other mental health professional for an evaluation. If your evaluation reveals that you would benefit from therapy, counseling and/or medication services, these professionals will either offer you appropriate services, or will refer you to another professional who will be better able to help you.

  • Failed Self-Help Efforts. If your self-help attempts are not working, or you find it very difficult to stick with self-help efforts, seek the help of a professional. There is no reason you shouldn't ask for help, as millions of other people do, when you need it.

  • Alcohol or Substance Abuse. If you have an alcohol or other drug abuse problem, seek professional help. A licensed substance abuse counselor, or similar professional can help you manage both your substance abuse issue and the many problems that inevitably result from substance abuse issues (such as poor family relationships and inadequate social support). You may also require the assistance of residential treatment programs and detoxification facilities. Medically supervised detoxification is absolutely necessary for helping people to safely come off of certain drugs, including alcohol. Trying to come off Alcohol "cold turkey" by yourself can result in your death!

    Twelve step programs such as Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) and Narcotics Anonymous (NA) are one of the better and more available ways of helping yourself stay sober after you've been detoxified. AA and NA offer exactly the type and frequency of support and encouragement you’ll need to achieve and maintain sobriety, and to deal with the emotions and changes that you’ll likely need to address as you remain in recovery. Alcohol or drug abuse or addiction, along with mental health issues or disorder, occurs far more commonly than we used to think. Treatment and counseling provided by a trained substance abuse counselor, or by a mental health counselor with substance abuse training is highly recommended.

  • Lack Of Clarity. If you find that you just aren’t sure what your issue or problem really is or what to do about it, consult with a professional. A professional, whether a licensed therapist, counselor, nurse, psychologist, or psychiatrist, can help you to better understand what your problem is, and how to deal with it.

One practical way to determine whether or not you need professional help is to look at how you’re doing on a day-to-day basis. If you’re able to take care of all or most things that most people are able to do, such as brushing your teeth, shopping, making meals for yourself, doing laundry, driving, working, concentrating adequately on what you're doing at any given moment, and making and maintaining friendships, you’re more likely to be able to help yourself with certain issues than if you can’t currently do those things. If you’re having trouble concentrating or sleeping, are suicidal, drug or alcohol addicted or are experiencing hallucinations, self-help may be too difficult. If you're really depressed, self-help efforts may be too difficult to sustain. Since self-help requires that you spend a lot of energy on thinking and acting in particular and new ways, consider whether you’re really feeling up to making the effort to do it properly, or whether it would be better to have a professional "guide" to help you along.