“Just because we have a mental illness of our own, doesn’t mean we’re not equipped to help you with yours.”
Special thanks to the mental health professionals who provided intel and anecdotes for this post: Erin Wiley, LPCC, executive director at The Willow Center and Thomas Franklin, MD, psychiatrist and medical director of The Retreat at Sheppard Pratt. And by the way, different mental health pros use different terms (patient, client) to refer to the people they treat based on their certification. So we’ve used a variety of terminology in the piece based on our sources.
Yes, mental health professionals can be diagnosed with and need treatment for mental illness.
Psychological problems are common, and mental health professionals can suffer from mental illness too — and probably just as often as people in the general population.
People assume that, if you’re in the helping profession, you must be in perfect mental health, you must be 100% emotionally competent, and you know how to make all the right choices in life. But the truth is that we're human. We struggle just like everyone else.
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Although sometimes we keep it to ourselves because we're afraid it will affect our professional reputation.
The stigma surrounding mental health problems can be tough to overcome for anyone, but may be particularly challenging for those whose job it is to care for others with mental illness. We may be reluctant to pursue a diagnosis and treatment because we sometimes believe (and may be told by our colleagues) that having a mental illness could hurt our reputation and be bad for our career.
Despite our training, we can't just make our mental illness go away.
Being a mental health professional doesn't give us super powers. Once we decide to seek help and get diagnosed, we have to go through the same process of figuring out how to treat our illness. And once we figure out what that is, we, too, have to work at it and put in serious time and effort in order to see results.
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And some of us take a long time to get ourselves the help/treatment we need.
Some of us take a relatively long time (sometimes years) to get treatment, because, regardless of being mental health professionals, we still have friends, family, and coworkers that perpetuate the negative stigma surrounding mental health.
We’re human, and we don't want other people to think that we're incapable of doing our jobs. And unfortunately, that sometimes means we have a hard time taking the same advice we give our patients.
Sometimes that treatment means taking medication to help us get to a place where we can feel OK every day, just like everyone else.
It's never easy admitting that you need medication to overcome the symptoms of mental illness — and that's something we definitely struggle with too. Yes, some of us take antidepressants, anti-anxiety drugs, or other medications because that's what works for us and allows us to function every day to the best of our ability. Taking medication doesn't mean we're incapable of doing our jobs.
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Working in mental health doesn't mean we automatically know what meds are going to work for us — it's still a process of trial and error.
Everyone reacts to medication differently. So even though we may know all about specific mental illnesses and symptoms, and the medications that treat them, it doesn't mean we know exactly which medication or combo of medications is going to work best for us. It can take months, if not years, to find the right treatment.
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And it can also be tough finding the right psychiatrist/therapist because we want to make sure they're an outside party with no ties to us, or our practice.
Some of us definitely don't want to see a psychiatrist/therapist we'd have to run into every time we go into work. We want confidentiality, the same way our patients want confidentiality. A lot of us want to keep our professional lives completely separate from our personal lives. So it can be tough, especially if our practice is well-connected, to find a mental health care pro that doesn’t have any ties to us (or the people we know).
Even though it may seem like we've got it all together, we're still constantly working through our own ups and downs.
Even though it may seem like we're 100% functional human beings that don't need help, we may be taking medication, seeing a psychiatrist or other professional, going to therapy, and taking the good days with the bad. We have potentially lifelong illnesses that we have to manage, and that means there will always be seasons of life that are easier/harder to get through than others.
However, that doesn't mean we're not equipped to help you.
People can definitely expect us to be professional and capable. Yes, we might see therapists ourselves, and could be on medication, but we really care about our patients and try to always make them our priority. We are careful to ensure that our mental illness doesn't ever affect our ability to help. So if we're having a particularly tough day, we check that at the door when we come into work.
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Though, sometimes, it could mean we're pretty bad at prioritizing our own mental health.
We're not invincible. Bad days can be tough because when we're depleted and feeling really down it's hard to be there for people. But a lot of us get into this field because we're service-oriented people. So sometimes we're a lot better at taking care of our clients than we are at taking care of ourselves.
Even if we're struggling at work, we find some way to turn it on and take care of people. Most of us have actually never taken a mental health day, and only skip work if we're physically sick — which we know contradicts the advice that we give every day. But if we're having a tough time, and we truly believe we're not capable of helping our client, we'll reschedule or have a colleague take over for us.
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Just because we teach you coping strategies, doesn't mean we're perfect at them ourselves.
Like most people know, it's easier to give advice than to take it, and we're not immune to that. We have to really make psychotherapy, cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), and other coping strategies a priority, and that doesn't come easy — especially because we feel like we're supposed to be pros at it.
Some of us start out believing that because we work in mental health care, we should be able to implement the coping techniques we teach and cope with mental illness on our own. But more often than not, we end up realizing that in order to overcome our symptoms and function at the level we want, we have to get help like everyone else.
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But having a mental illness of our own, could actually help us better understand and treat you.
We don’t believe you have to experience a mental illness to be a good mental health professional. But our experiences can give us a unique point of view. It could increase empathy for our clients and help us better understand specific symptoms and illnesses, and how best to treat them.
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Some of us actually decided to go into mental health care because of our own struggles with mental illness.
Sometimes we're inspired by an awesome therapist, medication, or a type of therapy that just completely changed our life for the better. And for some of us who weren't already going into the field, that was enough to make us passionate about pursuing a career in mental health.
But that doesn't mean we're always comfortable talking to our clients about it.
Some of us are very reluctant to share our experiences with mental illness for a variety of reasons. It could be because we're worried that parents won't want their kids to get help from someone who's not "mentally well,” or we're still afraid it could hurt our reputation amongst the mental health community, or maybe we just want to keep our sessions completely about our client, and don't want to bring ourselves into the conversation.
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However, sometimes we will change our mind if we think being open about our experiences could help.
If there's a situation where we believe being open about our experiences with mental illness could help a client trust us, or help a client's family understand the client and their situation better, we may decide it's worth it.
It’s sad, but sometimes a client’s family members and friends won’t believe the client’s experiences until we tell them that we’ve gone through the same thing ourselves.
And last but not least, even though we're usually the ones taking care of other people, we also need our own loving support group.
We, just like everyone else, need to lean on people (friends, family, significant others, etc.) every now and then. People who have a strong support network are usually more capable of overcoming and successfully dealing with mental illnesses — and that also goes for us.
Yes, it's our job to help other people. But we're human. And sometimes, we could use a little help too.
Follow along at BuzzFeed.com/MentalHealthWeek from Oct. 2 to Oct. 8, 2017.
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