Why I Celebrate My Birthday With Therapy

Here's why a talk therapy session makes a surprisingly good birthday gift to yourself.

I didn’t plan to end up in therapy on my birthday.

Before I started a new job, I was rushing to use up my old health benefits. I packed my calendar with massages, purchased new glasses and booked a therapy appointment.

I’m not new to therapy. I’ve been in and out of counsellors’ and therapists’ offices for the past seven years, sitting through dozens of sessions of talk therapy. Initially, I was encouraged to speak with a professional to help me deal with my mother’s cancer diagnosis, then with the grief following her death. Later, I sought counselling to help navigate my every day. Am I doing enough? Am I doing too much? Why can’t I stop thinking about what my friend said? Even as my grief faded, there was always plenty to talk about.

Similar to booking a massage or making time for a bubble bath, therapy felt like caring for myself, and that’s how Vancouver-based clinical counsellor Makita Wiggins sees it too. “I always promote to my clients to use therapies as self-care,” she says.

For me, therapy was where I went to unpack my brain and examine those bits and pieces of myself that I didn’t realize I was carrying around. My birthday, on the other hand, is a celebration, often involving friends, cake and more than a few tequila shots. In my personal Venn diagram, therapy and my birthday were in separate bubbles. But in 2021, determined to cash in on my insurance, I found myself ringing in the big 3-2 with a virtual therapy session—and honestly, it was the best gift.

Radio host Jax Irwin had a similar realization. There’s a perception of therapy as “heavy and problem-solving,” she explains, but as someone who has been going regularly for years, therapy is part of her routine. So, when Irwin’s appointment happened to fall during a birthday trip with some friends, she didn’t reschedule. Instead, with her friends still asleep, Irwin climbed atop the houseboat they had rented and started her birthday with a call to her therapist. She remembers it as a sort of “private rooftop therapy oasis.”

Whether you’re on top of a houseboat, on a video call or in an office, therapy is a space where you can be yourself. You don’t have to be “the birthday girl” or mask how you’re feeling. For the duration of the session, you get to talk about whatever is on your mind, whether or not it makes for socially acceptable conversation. It truly is your party—and you can cry if you want to.

“If I’m a little bit sad after, that’s OK,” Irwin told her radio co-hosts when questioned about her unconventional tradition. “Growth is growth is growth, and I want to go into the next year growing.”

It may not seem like a fun way to commemorate a new year or birthday, but having fun isn’t the only way to mark a milestone. “Therapy sessions can go so many different ways: They can be hard and a lot of heavy lifting, but they can also be just so freeing,” says Irwin. She adds that after discussing this idea on the radio, the show heard from multiple listeners who have also integrated therapy as part of their birthday celebration, and even more people who were intrigued by the idea.

To be clear, I’m not saying that therapy is easy, let alone enjoyable—this especially depends on the type of therapy you’re engaging in. Really, it can feel like the opposite of conventional self-care. Instead of escaping into your favourite TV show, therapy forces you to confront everything from harmful patterns to trauma. But while therapy may not feel good in the moment, it has the potential to help you feel good long-term.

And just like your birthday is not like any other day, birthday therapy does not need to be like other sessions. Instead, a birthday therapy appointment can be used as a point of reflection and forward thinking. Irwin uses the time to set intentions for her next year. “It feels exciting to look forward with somebody who knows the ins and outs of you like that.”

(Related: How to Find the Best Therapy App for You, According to Experts

I had met with a new counsellor for my birthday session, someone who didn’t know me, but having them ask how I was doing and offer professional insight was healing. It was a designated time to discuss personal successes and struggles that don’t appear on Instagram or my resumé, like learning to set healthy boundaries or building self-esteem. My session didn’t solve any of these issues, but I walked away with a greater awareness of myself, my strengths and struggles, than before—something I wouldn’t have ever thought to put on my birthday wish list.

Regardless of the occasion, making time to care for our mental health is becoming increasingly urgent. With pandemic-related job loss, isolation, anxiety and fear, Canadians are facing a mental health crisis. One in four Canadian adults experience symptoms of depression, anxiety and post-traumatic stress disorder, and according to Statistics Canada, these rates are on the rise.

(Related: 8 Women Share the Impact the Pandemic Has Had on Their Mental Health

While Wiggins is all for the idea of reframing therapy as a form of celebration, she notes that the cost of mental health services is still a barrier for many. Prices vary depending on the type of therapy, location and the provider. Treatment from a general practitioner is covered by public health insurance, but other providers’ prices vary widely and can depend on several factors, like the type of practitioner and location. For instance, prices range from $70 for one-on-one psychotherapy with a social worker to $200 per appointment with a psychologist. Prices can also vary based on the type of therapy, such as couples counselling versus trauma-informed individual sessions Canadians spend around $950 million per year on private-practice psychotherapists, services that one in three are paying for out of pocket. A Canadian study published in 2020 highlighted the cost of services not covered by private insurance plans as a major barrier to mental health care.

I fall into that category. With my new health care plan, I will end up paying for the majority of my therapy sessions if I want to go regularly. It’s a frustrating reality, and yet another reason why it makes sense to see a therapist on my birthday—it’s a way of treating myself.

Wiggins tries to make her services accessible with sliding scale pricing and keeps a spot open for a pro bono client. But if it’s only feasible to go to therapy once or twice a year, she encourages clients to let the care provider know that, so that they can structure sessions accordingly. “Even if you just have that one-off, you learn so much about yourself in that one session,” she says. “Do it.”

How to access free mental health care

Canada is facing a mental health crisis, fuelled in part by the ongoing pandemic. Yet, in 2020, fewer than half of Canadians who wanted mental health support received services, according to the Commonwealth Fund’s annual International Health Policy survey. The price tag associated with care was a major barrier.

If you or someone you know needs mental health care, here are some free resources:

eMentalHealth.ca

This website, run by the Children’s Hospital of Eastern Ontario (CHEO), provides an extensive database of resources that can be narrowed down by the type of therapy, location, languages available and more. Users can also filter for “no fee” options.

Family doctors and psychiatrists

Getting mental health treatment from a family doctor or general practitioner (some of whom have training in mental health support) is covered by provincial and territorial health plans, such as RAMQ in Quebec or OHIP in Ontario. Family doctors can also provide assessments and referrals for a psychiatrist, who is a medical doctor specializing in mental illnesses. Psychiatrists are covered by public health insurance.

Wellness Together Canada

Created in response to the pandemic, with funding from the Government of Canada, Wellness Together Canada provides a range of educational and counselling resources, available 24/7 at no cost. Services include immediate text support, self-guided wellness programs and individual phone, video and text counselling. There are also free peer-support programs connecting Canadians with trained individuals who have personally experienced mental health and/or substance use challenges. Services are available to all Canadians, even those living abroad.

Next: 14 Virtual Care Services in Canada You Need to Know About

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Originally Published in Best Health Canada