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How talk therapy can improve your mental health

This is part of a series examining the mental health experience in Canada's workplaces.Take part in our short survey (tgam.ca/mentalhealthsurvey) and add your voice to this important conversation. This series supports The Globe and Mail and Morneau Shepell's Employee Recommended Workplace Award, which honours companies that put the health and well-being of their employees first. Winners for 2017 will be announced at a conference in late spring. Sign up to receive an e-mail about registration for 2018 atwww.employeerecommended.com.

A growing body of research suggests that talk therapy, especially Cognitive Behavioural Therapy or CBT, is an excellent front-line treatment, particularly for the two most costly categories of mental illnesses in Canada – anxiety and depression – which constitute more than 80 per cent of all psychiatric diagnoses. Not only does talk therapy often result in good treatment outcomes, it has fewer side effects and lower relapse rates than medication treatment. In addition, new research supports that people are more likely to start and continue in talk therapy compared to medication-only treatment.

"Talk therapy" is the process and conversation a trained mental health professional (such as a psychologist, social worker, professional counsellor, or psychiatrist) engages in with individuals seeking help to solve their mental health challenges. Mental health professionals trained in talk therapy are equipped with various techniques, models and approaches to assist individuals struggling to find personal insights and solutions to their mental health issues.

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Awareness

If you decided to go to talk therapy, would you know what to expect? For talk therapy to have the most impact it's necessary to have a sense of what you want out of it and that it requires your active involvement and commitment for it to be successful. By simply showing up, little will happen if you're expecting the therapy will help you without your active engagement.

Accountability

In talk therapy you are a customer using a professional service. Effective mental health professionals believe in change and are trained to establish a genuinely caring and collaborative relationship, to create safe boundaries, and to use their knowledge and training to help. They're not trained for, nor should they ever impose their will, judgment or control over you.

Talk therapy will work only if you're willing and motivated to engage in the process and to make the effort required. Much of the real work happens outside of therapy; it's what you do between sessions that often counts the most. Usually, goals for areas to work on between sessions are decided between you and a therapist, ensuring that work will support your goals. Like fitness, the more you practice, the stronger you'll get and the faster you'll make progress.

Action

The following checklist is designed to help you prepare for talk therapy.

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1. At a minimum, have a general sense of what issues are bringing you to talk therapy.

One productive reason to begin talk therapy is because you want to feel better and take control of your life. When others are telling you to try this therapy and you don't believe in the value or are not open to accept help, therapy rarely works. Once you can at least convey a general sense of what brings you to therapy, a good therapist will collaborate with you in setting specific, measurable, attainable and reasonable goals to work towards. Sometimes you may already have a specific goal in mind.

2. Before making an appointment, consider the talk therapist's credentials, experience and payment policy

It's important to have a sense that the issues you need assistance with fit the credentials of the professional you are seeking. There are many different types of mental health professionals, including psychiatrists, psychologists, psychotherapists, social workers and addictions counsellors. Get to know the differences between what different types of mental health professionals do and which might be the best fit, depending on your specific situation. Before starting work with a mental health professional who provides talk therapy (and not all do), get to know their specific credentials, experience with your issues, their fees, and how the session will be paid for. Early on, it's a good idea to find out how many sessions they recommend, at what frequency, and why. Don't be afraid to ask questions. If a therapist seems irritated to answer your questions, perhaps that person is not the right one for you.

3. Set your expectations in the first 10 minutes of talk therapy.

A common practice for a first session is for a talk therapist to ask what brings you in within the first 10 to 15 minutes, so they are clear on how to best start and support your needs and situation. It's helpful to the therapist if you come to the session prepared and clear on what you want and what success looks like for you. This sets the stage for you and your therapist to set realistic expectations.

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4. It's fine to ask questions.

If during talk therapy there's a suggestion for an exercise or technique and you're not sure you understand how it could possibly help, it's fine to ask why it is being suggested or how this helped others.

5. Give your feedback.

At any time it's fine to provide feedback on the session as to whether you're finding it helpful. It doesn't matter if you're feeling down, anxious or unhappy with your life; you still have a right to voice your opinion. In fact, in talk therapy your voice is the most important element, as in the end what you think will influence what you will do.

6. Evaluate your progress.

Progress can be measured in various ways. However, it is important to remember that sometimes progress takes some time and can depend on the severity or complexity of issues you bring to therapy in the first place. Talking with your therapist about progress is important. Many professionals, such as psychologists, are able to help you quantify changes over time in various ways.

Bill Howatt is the chief research and development officer of work force productivity with Morneau Shepell in Toronto.

Lisa Couperthwaite is a Clinical Psychologist at the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health (CAMH) Work, Stress & Health Program in Toronto.

Add your voice and take part in our short mental health survey: (tgam.ca/mentalhealthsurvey)

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Bill More

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