What to Expect When You See a Mental Health Counselor

When you go to a doctor for a physical, you may have a good idea about what will happen because you have received medical care in the past. Often, you will get your height, weight, blood pressure and temperature taken. Your provider will ask you a few questions, examine you and order some lab tests and perhaps a vaccination or two.

Going to a counselor for a mental health visit may make you feel nervous, intimidated or embarrassed because it may be something new for you and you might not know what to expect. These feelings are all normal. We want to help normalize the mental health visit for you to make it less scary!  We know it takes some courage to reach out for help.  Remember that reaching out is a sign of strength and it shows that you care about yourself enough to feel better and understand your feelings.

How long is the visit?

In contrast to the routine medical visit where you may only spend 15-30 minutes with a provider, and may not have to come back for several months, a visit with a mental health counselor is different. It takes time for a counselor to get to know you and your situation, and to come up with a specialized plan to help you. Each visit may last 45 minutes or longer; and you may need to come in every week or every couple of weeks for a few months or more. The first visit is usually the longest as the counselor will want to explain how the sessions will work, how confidentiality works and will want to learn more about why you came in.

Who will be in the meetings?

In some cases, you will talk with the counselor by yourself; with other visits, the counselor may want to talk with you, and your parents and other members of your family to get a better idea of how things are going at home. Depending on where you go, a parent or guardian is asked to be present for the first session to get family history.  At other places, you can go by yourself and the counselor will rely on you to provide any additional family information.  Sometimes it is helpful to have family members present so that the issue can be worked on.  It is important to know that you are in the driver’s seat and the counselor will work with you to make the best plan of action.

How will I feel after the first session?

When approaching this process, please be mindful and patient.  It may take a while to feel comfortable enough to share your private thoughts and feelings. Like any relationship, it is going to take time to build trust and get feedback on the changes that you will be making in your life.  For example, if your goal is to become a better basketball player or dancer, you might have to work with a basketball coach or dance instructor. At first, you might not know what your strengths and weaknesses are but, eventually over time, the counselor will learn more about you, provide you with drills and exercises, and supervise your practice sessions. If you put the time in, the results will pay off with improved performance.

Not everything is going to be ideal or changed after your first session; no one is magically “cured”. In fact, sometimes you may even feel a little worse because you may begin thinking more about things that you had been trying to put out of your mind. But it does not mean that you should quit going after the first session. Remember, you did not start feeling anxious or depressed overnight. Chances are these feelings began building up over weeks, months or years. It will take time.

A few tips are:

Be open minded: when you are in that space, recognize that your thoughts and emotions are valid. You are able to share whatever you want without judgement.

Be honest: counselors are experienced but are not “mind-readers”; they do not have Xray vision. The more honest and open you are, the quicker they can figure out the right treatment plan to help you feel better.

Lean into discomfort: As we said earlier, you may feel a little uncomfortable or uneasy at first.  It is ok to be sad, mad, or frustrated. Your counselor will help you deal with those feelings and help steer you towards a place of comfort and safety.

Be mindful and present: Recognize that the space is created for you. Take as much time and space you need because it is your space.

Remember, this may be a journey. For some people, it may only last a few weeks or months before things feel more stable. For other people, it may take longer. Some people will do well and end therapy, but go back into therapy later on in life when they feel they need to get help again. All of these pathways are normal. There is no “right” way. What is important is to be aware and honest with yourself and get the help you need, when you need it, so you can achieve great things in your life!