In Brief

People's decision to seek psychological help strongly correlates with their comfort about revealing personal thoughts or feelings to another person, according to a study published in the Journal of Counseling Psychology (Vol. 50, No. 3) by Iowa State University assistant psychology professor David Vogel, PhD, and University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee assistant educational psychology professor Stephen Wester, PhD.

In two studies surveying 209 and 268 college students, Vogel and Wester considered potential clients' counseling avoidance triggers, such as fear of self-disclosure and self-concealment, to see why people seek therapy.

The first study measured distress disclosures, emotional disclosures and attitudes toward counseling by having students rank phrases numerically on a Likert-type scale. The second focused on the role of avoidance factors in participants' attitudes toward counseling and their intentions of seeking counseling. They found that these avoidance factors were predictive of attitudes and intents to seek counseling while approach factors, such as gender and perceived social support, were not.

The study shows that psychologists can better anticipate the needs of people who are leery of the counseling process--especially considering that only one-third of people who could likely benefit from psychological treatment seek help, according to the authors.

"Going to counseling is a risky endeavor," Vogel explains, "You open up with someone over very personal issues, and it is important for us to understand if they are going to go, and why."

Previous research has found that such variables as gender and the level of distress increase the chance of seeking help. However, these factors account for less than 25 percent of the clients' help-seeking attitudes.

"Avoidance factors--in particular, one's comfort in self-disclosing distressing information--account for at least as much help-seeking variance as traditionally studied approach factors," says Vogel.

Although limited because participants self-reported their attitudes and the pool of college students may not be considering psychological treatment, the research still points to the difficulties and risks that people weigh when considering counseling, says Vogel.

Future research, he says, should address the role of potential clients' risk factors when self-disclosing information inside and outside of therapy.

"Counseling could be perceived as a type of risk-taking behavior, and, as such, counselors may need to pay extra attention to clients expectations and fears about counseling both in our outreach efforts and in our initial work with clients," Vogel says.

Thus, Vogel and Wester posit that providing counseling services, such as education or public service interventions and outreach programs to reduce a person's fear of counseling, may increase individuals' likelihood of seeking psychological help.