Using therapy to improve your life

I read your articles regularly and notice that you often recommend psychotherapy to people who write to you about their problems.
Why would it be helpful for them to speak to a therapist, and besides, many people may not be able to afford it or have the time to spend an hour a week with a therapist talking about their problems. We all have problems, that’s life, why must they unpack things with a psychotherapist?

Thank you for posing such a valuable question. Many readers write in because they have a problem that may be too overwhelming to deal with on their own.

They may have tried other means including talking to friends or family members or even their religious leader. But sometimes this is not enough as although these people provide them with support and encouragement, psychotherapy goes much deeper than this.

Mental health professionals go through a rigorous process of intense training in understanding the human psyche in order to qualify and treat people with mental health problems. For example, clinical psychologists have to commit to six to eight years of full-time tertiary training in psychology.

They get specialised training in clinical psychology during their Master’s degree, which includes studying and gaining supervised experience in working with severe psychopathology and various other mental health issues.

During their training they are also expected to undergo a therapy process so that they gain experience in being a patient but mainly to understand, become aware of and work through their own personal issues.

Mental health professionals are also human and are also subject to psychological and emotional torments that are part of the human psyche and lived experience. These include experiencing depression, phobias, anxiety and many more mental health issues.

What is psychotherapy?

A qualified mental health professional can help people to work through many problems that can be debilitating and obstructive to living a more fulfilling life.

Through psychotherapy, qualified mental health professionals help people of all ages live happier, healthier and more productive lives.

Psychotherapists apply well-proven methods to help people develop healthier, more effective habits. There are several approaches to psychotherapy, including cognitive-behavioural, psychodynamic, psychoanalytic, interpersonal and other kinds of talk therapy – that help individuals work through their problems.

Psychotherapy is a collaborative treatment based on the relationship between the patient and their therapist.

Grounded in dialogue, it provides a supportive environment that allows you to talk openly
with someone who’s objective, neutral and nonjudgmental. To develop a deep sense of trust in your therapist it is vital to be able to open up about everything regarding your inner world, past and present. And knowing that it is treated as completely confidential, significantly aids in being able to surrender to the therapy process.

Jointly, the therapist and patient will work together to identify and transform their thought, emotional and behavioural patterns that have been inhibiting them and preventing them from enjoying their lives fully.

When should you consider psychotherapy?

Psychotherapy can help any time your quality of life is impaired or limited.

Some people seek psychotherapy because they have felt depressed, anxious or angry for a long time. Others may want help for a chronic illness that is interfering with their emotional or physical well-being. Still others may have short-term problems they need help navigating. They may be going through a divorce, facing an empty nest, feeling overwhelmed by a new job or grieving a family member’s death, for example.

Signs that you could benefit from therapy include:

Feeling an overwhelming, prolonged sense of helplessness and sadness or feel excessively needy and/or avoiding people often.

Problems don’t seem to get better despite efforts and help from family and friends.

Finding it difficult to concentrate on work assignments or to carry out other everyday activities.

Worrying excessively, expect-ing the worst or being constantly on edge.

Addictions such as drinking too much alcohol, using drugs or being aggressive.

What are the different kinds of psychotherapy?

There are many different approaches to psychotherapy.

Therapists generally draw on one or more of these. Each theoretical perspective acts as a roadmap to help the therapist understand their patients and their problems.

Therapists who use cognitive-behavioral therapy, for example, have a practical approach to treatment.

Your therapist might ask you to tackle certain tasks designed to help you develop more effective coping skills. This approach often involves homework, behaviour logging and reading assignments. In contrast, psychoanalytic and humanistic approaches typically focus more on talking.

You might spend your sessions unravelling your early childhood experiences to help you and your therapist better understand the root causes of your problems.

Many therapists blend elements from different approaches and tailor their treatment according to each patient’s needs.

There are many organisations that offer reduced rates or
free sessions including FAMSA (Families South Africa) and LifeLine.

Finally, it’s important to know whether a psychotherapist has expertise in the area you need help with and whether they feel they can help you. You have a right to ask whether a mental health practitioner has the appropriate expertise and qualifications to deal with the nature of your problem.

Contacting the Health Professionals Council of South Africa (HPCSA) to find out if the practitioner is qualified is a good way to start.

Carin-Lee Masters is a clinical psychologist. Write to her at or send a WhatsApp message or SMS to 082 264 7774