How young people are navigating therapy to help themselves – and their relationships
Catherine Abes, 23, sets her laptop on her bed, facing the wall. It’s time for her online therapy session and she doesn’t want her therapist to see the mess in her room. During the session, she hears a baby cooing in the background from her therapist’s mic. At times, Abes looks at the wall, avoiding eye contact. An hour later, at 5 p.m., she closes her laptop and rests for an hour processing her thoughts after the counselling session.
As the editor-in-chief at The Eyeopener, Abes was encouraged to seek therapy by her roommate, in order to support her own mental health and the well-being of her staff. “How are you going to look after other people if you’re not looking after yourself?” her roommate asked. “You need to have your own space to offload all of that stuff.”
In a therapeutic relationship, you aren’t expected to share the conversation equally; you have full permission to speak, to unload, to unpack your emotional worries.
Abes is one of a growing number of young people navigating therapy during a pandemic. The last year has shone a spotlight on the complexities of mental health issues, particularly for young people, whose mental health has taken the most significant toll due to the pandemic, according to Statistics Canada.
It’s important to seek support for your mental health from a trained professional who “knows how to listen to you, and knows how to pull certain things out,” Abes says. “If you go to your friends or family, it’s hard for people to not be like – well, when this happened to me… Your therapist won’t do that to you.”
But this doesn’t mean it’s self-serving — by helping yourself, you’re helping others — your friends, your family, your colleagues. While therapy isn’t taking place in person during the pandemic, it’s still intimate — and effective.
According to Abes, it’s unfair that therapy is so beneficial, yet difficult to obtain for many people. If you have the privilege of accessing therapy, it can be on a computer screen in your apartment, over the phone on a walk in your neighbourhood. Or what Abes calls a place in between — observing that she and her therapist create a third space together where the mess of her room disappears and the world falls away. This allows her to focus on the session, where she learns about why she is the way that she is, and through understanding herself, she works toward solutions to feel better.
Stefanie Rico, a Toronto-based registered psychotherapist and social worker, says that the therapeutic process is collaborative. “Asking the client, ‘Is there anything that worked really well for you this session?’ ‘Is there anything that didn’t?’ ‘Did you really hate that mindful exercise?’ That’s OK!” she says with a laugh.
There’s a level of professionalism that therapists have to retain in session, responding appropriately to best serve the client. But therapists are human, and often see a therapist of their own.
“To be a good therapist, you need to be a good patient,” says Milly Feliz, a Toronto-based registered psychotherapist. Therapists witness clients sharing deep trauma and pain — Feliz describes the effects of supporting this, day in, day out, as compassion fatigue and vicarious trauma, causing stress that requires another professional’s perspective.
There’s a misconception that therapists are a blank slate, devoid of emotion, Rico says. While that’s not true, when therapists do express emotion in session, it can be for the client’s benefit.
“You’re telling me something sad, so maybe my face is sad — what does it feel like, to have that reflected back at you? When perhaps you shared something sad with someone else, and their face was not mirroring that,” she says.
When a client has a breakthrough, it’s not always necessary for a therapist to contain their joy.
“It just really lights me up,” Rico says, beaming over Zoom. “A lot of times I hear, ‘I’ve never told anyone this before,’ and wow. Thank you for trusting me. I could tear up right now, thinking about all of the wonderful breakthroughs.”
Breakthroughs, however, might not feel joyous in the moment.
Valentina Gastaldo, a fourth-year media production student at Ryerson University, has worked with the same therapist for four years. When she was 10, her father immigrated to Ontario from Brazil, and in 2016 she started university in Toronto. She sought out a therapist to cope with depression.
In therapy, Gastaldo says she had to explore a tangle of losses: Leaving her country and mother, moving to a new country, having to redo high school in Canada for a year and a half, difficult family dynamics — the process of working through these changes wasn’t easy.
During a session before the pandemic, her therapist hit a nerve by posing a question. “I started getting very angry at her — I started saying so many mean things,” she said. “She looked at me, and she was like — ‘you’re getting angry at me, but know that you don’t have to stay here, you can leave anytime you want.’”
She left the session early, but she returned the following week. For her, this was a lesson that therapy is a safe space she can always come back to.
“When you go to therapy, you are investing in yourself, but you’re also investing in learning how to have a healthy relationship with someone who can hear you and trust you,” Gastaldo says. Therapy, she says, is a model for the other relationships in her life.
There are times when progress can be difficult to measure in therapy. Some therapists set specific goals with their clients and some assign homework, but there’s no clear finish line. Even with regular sessions, therapy isn’t a magic fix — it’s a practice.
“I don’t actually really know if anybody has their shit together, but some people have really good therapists, and that’s a good start,” Abes says.