For most of us, going to the doctor is a regular part of life. We get annual checkups and do our best to follow the doctor’s recommendations. If an issue is found, we see a specialist: For heart palpitations, you go to a cardiologist. For skin problems, you go to a dermatologist. 

But there’s one area of health care that many people still feel icky about — mental health. Why? 

The brain is our most vital and complex organ that is critical to our experience as human beings. From a medical perspective, the electrochemical processes within tissue encased by the skull are no less important or more deliberate than electrochemical processes protected by our rib cage. 

So why do we stigmatize taking care of one but not the other?

Mental health, or brain health as I prefer to call it, should be treated as a medical matter as we would treat any other part of the body. And, as we proactively monitor and protect our heart or kidneys, we should protect our brain, too.

The brain is far more complex than other organs, meaning it requires its own set of exercises. It’s not enough to watch our diet, sleep or run on a treadmill — although these activities definitely help. Instead, taking care of the brain requires unique exercises that can strengthen neural pathways in a healthy way. One such tool to help achieve this goal is therapy.

Most people have the wrong idea of therapy. Seeing a therapist doesn’t only have to happen when you have a problem. It also doesn’t necessarily mean you have a brain disease. Rather, therapy can, and arguably should, begin early in life as a consistent way to gain self-insight, practice therapeutic tools and identify obstacles to brain health before the problems arise. 

Preventative brain care allows you to navigate life’s challenges more successfully. It can also help you mitigate potential diseases, especially for people predisposed to brain health conditions via genetic or environmental factors — as is true for anyone predisposed to other health issues.

Another misperception people often have about therapy is that it’s the therapist’s job to fix them. This could not be further from the truth. Like most things in life, you get out of therapy what you put in. Just as signing up for a gym membership won’t give you ripped abs, sitting on a therapist’s couch won’t strengthen your brain — you must actually make an effort. In the case of therapy, this means being willing to learn and practice the tools provided to you, even if this type of exercise sometimes means trading sweat for tears.

Admittedly, our current medical system should be better equipped to manage brain health properly. Many still lack easy and affordable access to therapists or trained brain health specialists who could teach them the tools they need to stay healthy.

Research into brain health is also systematically underfunded compared to its impact on society. As a result, significant inequities, especially for women, continue to persist. 

These systemic inequities are fueled by stigma. One stigma often not discussed is that a majority of men report feeling less comfortable seeking treatment than women, even during an active medical crisis. This is due to a long-standing socialized history of masculine strength being equated with the withholding of emotion — a natural, biological process that defines the human experience. 

Denying men access to the full emotional spectrum based on antiquated gender norms not only hinders life fulfillment, but it increases the likelihood of violent acts, including suicide. This lack of social acceptability for men to seek help is also likely a significant factor in the increased harm perpetrated against women.

Strengthening our brain’s ability to function well is one of the best ways we can positively engage with ourselves and each other, making seeking mental health treatment a strength, not a weakness.

Yet given the stigma that persists, continued efforts to normalize and destigmatize brain health are critical to success. For this reason, I am proud to share that I have a therapist, and I actively encourage you to get one, too.

Trish Zornio is a scientist, lecturer and writer who has worked at some of the nation’s top universities and hospitals. She’s an avid rock climber and was a 2020 candidate for the U.S. Senate in Colorado. Trish can be found on Twitter @trish_zornio

Trish Zornio

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Trish Zornio is a scientist, lecturer and writer who has worked at some of the nation’s top universities and hospitals. She’s an avid rock climber and was a 2020 candidate for the U.S. Senate in Colorado. Trish can be found on Twitter @trish_zornio