Working in Mental Health
Working in the mental health field is as difficult as it is rewarding. We often see people on their worst days; when they feel as though their life is not worth living and their journey is not worth exploring. We have an opportunity to help those who struggle to help themselves regain control of their lives through safe space, therapy, and medication. There is nothing shameful about having and receiving help for mental illness, and chemical imbalances, behaviors, and diagnoses do not define you as a person. People with mental illnesses deserve informed care, respect, and dignity just like any other patient. Being a part of the system working to treat and destigmatize mental illness goes beyond a professional nature for me, it’s personal.
Living with depression and anxiety has been my life for nearly 10 years now. The deadly duo, as I call them, have taken precious moments away from my existence. Holidays became triggers for anxiety, long sleeves became armor to hide self-harm scars, and my family relationships were weakened by depression telling me I was not loved. While mental illness has taken many experiences away, it has also shaped the strong, independent woman I am today. I accept that depression and anxiety are in my life and likely will be for a long time, though that does not make the endless cycles of shame, hopelessness, anger, and panic go away. Learning skills to cope with these feelings has eased the burden to a degree. Through my own treatment, I have taken solace in knowing pain is inevitable, suffering is not.
I don’t consider myself to be suffering from mental illness because it has served such a larger purpose in my life and the lives of those who learn from my journey. Practicing non-attachment to the pain I have experienced opens up the possibility to create meaning from it. I have such deep empathy for those struggling with mental illness, self-confidence/compassion, and personal worth because I have struggled (and many times continue to struggle) in finding my own balance. These experiences have created a narrative of who I am. It is through my story and struggle that I have the privilege and ability to help guide others to their strength.
Patients don’t know if I had a panic attack the night before my shift, they don't see my scars, and they don’t realize when I take a bathroom break it may just be to take a few deep breaths or a quick cry. The art of working any job with mental illness is knowing when and how to take care of yourself, and in the mental health field, this is even more critical. I need to rely on my own intuition and have the courage to reach out to my team when I need extra support. How can I take proper care of others when I can’t do the same for myself?
Wellness practitioners need to walk the walk as much as they talk the talk. Practice what you preach! We need the awareness to know when to step away in order to heal ourselves even if we can ‘function’ regardless. I like to ask myself if I would want someone in my mindset to take care of my family members. If the answer is no, then it’s time to take a step back. Taking time off due to mental illness is highly stigmatized as opposed to physical illness, even in the mental health field. It’s much easier to tell a supervisor “I have the flu, I can't come in,” versus saying, “my suicidal ideation is getting the best of me today, I need to rest.”
While working with individuals who are currently in a crisis that I’ve personally experienced can be draining and even triggering, it puts meaning into my life. I am blessed to have the opportunities to reflectively listen and relate to patients. I am able to evaluate whether my story would benefit them in their journey. Often, an empathetic ear is enough. Because empathy requires connection to something within yourself that understands that feeling, without my journey I could only imagine what they’re going through from an outside perspective.
Ultimately, service to others is a value that provides purpose to my life. I am able to identify this is what really matters and align my life to it. Fueling connection and being helpful provide the meaning alignment needed to live out my purpose. While it is not up to us to decide if we are helpful, the opportunity to be validated is enough. We are continually encouraged to keep contributing to this world by providing service to others. At the same time, we need to value that our presence alone is enough, and we do not need anything other than ourselves to be valuable.
My contribution to my own wellness enables the opportunity for someone else’s story to be positively impacted. Individuals with mental illness are so much greater than a diagnosis. They are friends, teachers, doctors, creatives, and more. Any role you choose starts with you committing to serving yourself BEFORE serving others.
I continue on in life with the knowledge things DO get better, while also being aware that depression and anxiety find their way to mask strength with suffering. It comes down to knowing that you still have meaning and purpose beyond these feelings. My story matters, my voice matters, my work matters, and so I keep living.