How do I know when I should speak with a psychologist / counselor?
In short, anytime you need help with your feelings and/or your behavior.
Any of these signs is a good reason for reaching out to a professional:
Feeling overwhelmed or anxious a lot of the time.
Having trouble concentrating on schoolwork, having difficulty with eating or sleeping, or very worried about a personal problem.
Experiencing uncontrolled bouts of crying, unexplained periods of sadness, or crying for no reason. These behaviors are signs of depression that often require professional assistance.
Getting angry easily or being hostile to your friends or family.
Drinking heavily or using drugs regularly.
Feeling overwhelmed by studying. Study skill assistance, that is, help with time management (how much to study and when), how to take notes, how to take tests, and how to read a textbook, may be sought at a university counseling center.
If a roommate or teacher recommends it. Often, a respected friend or mentor sees things in us that we are not aware of.
Seeking professional help is one of the smartest things you can do.
It doesn’t mean you are crazy, weird, or immature, but just plain wise. If you lived in New York City, for example, seeking professional assistance would be a sign of your sophistication, not mental instability. I say that because attitudes about seeing a psychologist or a counselor vary depending on where you live and on your family’s cultural values. Regardless of geographical or familial attitudes, seeking professional help is a very worthwhile pursuit.
Talking to a counselor is one way of sorting out your problems and gaining a new perspective. Very often, the very act of talking to an objective person (a sounding board) reduces some of the tension and you can gain clarity.
When problems overwhelm us, they are difficult to see clearly.
The problem feels lost in a fog or a sea of contradictions and seems unsolvable, when realistically the problem needs to be reframed or thought about differently so it can be approached more rationally.
For example, if you are anxious about failing a course, the anxiety about failing can be overwhelming and blind you to some productive solutions, such as talking to the instructor about your difficulties with the material, getting a tutor, or dropping the course before the deadline. Similarly, if you are having roommate problems, learning how to communicate more clearly without defensiveness can be very helpful. Communication strategies can make the difference between ongoing conflict and peaceful resolutions.
Going to talk to a psychologist/counselor is almost never a mistake.
At the very least, it will be a new experience. At the most, it will be a life-changing event. If your problem is minor, it will be solved quickly. If more major, it will take more time and persistence. Know that all the material from counseling is confidential and is not available to the rest of the university, unless you give permission to release any of it.
The very act of going to see someone for help is a sign of your courage and determination to grow and change in positive ways.
Being “open” versus “closed” to new experiences is a positive personality trait that has been correlated with all sorts of other positive outcomes, such as creativity, friendliness, and overall success in life, so developing openness is decidedly worthwhile.
I’m Dr. Geraldine K. Piorkowski, a clinical psychologist who has been practicing psychology in a variety of settings for over 50 years. Throughout the 80s and 90s, I was the Director of two University Counseling Centers (Roosevelt University, Chicago; and the University of Illinois at Chicago), where I worked with college students, many of whom were the first in their families to go to college.
In addition to my work in university counseling centers, I was Chair of the Psychology Department at Roosevelt University, and Supervising Psychologist in several medical schools, psychiatric hospitals, and mental health clinics over the years. I am also the author of two books on romantic love; Too Close for Comfort: Exploring the Risks of Intimacy; and Adult Children of Divorce: Confused Love Seekers. Since leaving the university setting in 2001, I have been in private practice seeing clients, most of whom are successful professionals but are struggling with some aspect of their personal lives.
I was the first in my family to go to college.