Having worked in mental health and as a crisis worker, I have seen the back storage room of the store. It’s not good news. Bell Let’s Talk day (January 25th) is a reminder of how much we need to blow the lid off the stigma of mental Illness, for everyone.
I am thinking of a woman that I really admire. She had spent most of her social worker years helping people afflicted with different mental health disorders.
We would talk about how difficult it was to deal with the stigma of mental illness. Both of us had spent time and energy trying to demystify and de-stigmatize the difficulties to help our clients.
A number of years back, after not seeing her for quite some time, she came to an event I was attending. I hardly recognized her. Clearly, she was not well herself.
She tried to pretend that she was very functional but anyone could see that she was struggling with an unhealthy mental state that was impeding her professional life.
It was very sad to me because she was not able to fool anyone except maybe herself with the pretense. I remember the forced smile and laughter as she tried too hard and spoke to loudly to say that everything was “GREAT!”
Thankfully, she has now managed to regain her health and totally recovered. In fact, she is now better than ever and now lives authentically and happily.
She confided how painful it had been for her to admit the signs she had been ignoring for so long until they brought her to her knees. I feel privileged for the conversation we had about her journey and the difficulties of dealing with her personal denial.
What was really particularly interesting is that she used to be the one to diagnose problems in others. Yet here she was, admitting to me that she refused to acknowledge them in herself.
I recognized this
In fact I completely identified with that need to protect ourselves from our colleagues in clinical environments. I know that when I felt anxiety or a sense of overwhelm, turning to my colleagues did not feel safe.
For example, when I was a crisis interventionist in a new job, I remember telling a client that I understood where she was experiencing. I mentioned that the challenges she was currently navigating were the same that I was struggling within my family.
It was just a passing comment so that she would know I understood.
When I shared this in our weekly team meeting, my boss was quite upset. She told me it was very unprofessional of me to even admit that I may have experienced that same problem.
She wondered out loud if I was compromised in my ability to do my work because of these personal challenges I faced.
She thought I might not be well enough to do my job as counselor because I had stress at home? Yikes. Can you imagine if I had disclosed a burnout from years before? That was never going to happen now.
To continue with this client intervention, my argument was that therapeutic alliance needed to be based on authenticity. I truly believe that it is our common humanity that is the most helpful.
My mother suffers from bi-polar disorder and we worked with this disease head on. My boss disagreed with my approach and wanted a professional distance never mentioning my connection to the illness.
Despite the positive outcomes I helped my clients achieve and could point to, we were really at odds with one another. I later had a chat with a senior worker there who told me to listen to our boss.
Scrutiny, judgment and stigma
I saw this stigma play out time and time again in clinical environments. One psychologist friend told me that she could probably grow an entire practice for supporting mental health workers too afraid to speak up with their challenges.
Over the years, I have noticed many instances where professionals felt that they were supposed to be above all of life’s challenges and obstacles. Not just health care workers ignoring their own health; but leaders who feel stressed by circumstances beyond their control and who live in fear of being discovered so that they feel anxious and afraid.
You see, people can only contain this type of information for a limited time. Then things will slip and they let their guard down. Worried about being discovered, that increases the stress. In my experience, keeping those stories to ourselves becomes cumulative, and eventually, the dam can burst.
Whether mental illness or circumstances beyond our control, these situations do not make us impostors as professionals. Whether we are a doctor, a nurse, an accountant or an engineer: these make us human and are great teachers of compassion.
Hope and resilience
When you are faced with very difficult challenges, if I was to name one thing that increases your hope and resiliency, it is the feeling of knowing that you are not alone with your experiences. If my acquaintance had felt safe to speak up sooner, she would have sought help much sooner and not gotten that sick.
So Let’s Talk!
What’s your work environment like? Do you think someone would feel respected and supported if they were struggling with depression, anxiety or other mental illnesses? I sure hope so. And if it’s you, maybe it’s time to talk!