Should mental health professionals be upfront about their own battles with mental illnesses? Would you sooner go to one psychologist over another if she suffered from and/or overcame the same illness for which you are seeking assistance?
Not only is there a stigma around mental illness in the general population, but there is a long-standing stigma in the mental health profession—around professionals not exposing their own mental health struggles.
Research into the experiences of mental health professionals with their own mental illnesses is still new. Newer still—a handful of these specialists are now choosing to open up about their mental health experiences.
Therapist and University of Washington researcher Marsha M. Linehan was first treated for “extreme social withdrawal” when she was 17, and was eventually diagnosed with borderline personality disorder.
In a June 2011 article for The New York Times, writer Benedict Carey interviewed Linehan, who had recently publicly revealed, for the first time, her own lifetime of mental health struggles and successes.
“No one knows how many people with severe mental illness live what appear to be normal, successful lives,” wrote Carey, “because such people are not in the habit of announcing themselves.” But more and more, these seemingly normal, successful people are taking a risk and exposing the truth of their own challenges, “saying that the time is right”.
In his blog for TheHuffPost.com, Dr. Harold Koplewicz, a child and youth psychiatrist and president of the Child Mind Institute in New York, commented on Linehan’s courage. “Acceptance by a broader public of the reality of psychiatric illness is the key to effective treatment,” he wrote. “That’s why it’s so important that Dr. Lineman decided, after decades, to go public about her own story, an unusual enough step for a clinician that one of my colleagues . . . called it coming out.”
According to the 68-year-old Linehan, throughout her years in practice, many patients had asked her: “Are you one of us?” One patient’s reasoning that it would provide hope for other sufferers to know success like Linehan’s is possible, persuaded the psychologist to confess.
Interviewed in Carey’s New York Times article, she explained: “So many people have begged me to come forward, and I just thought--well, I have to do this. I owe it to them. I cannot die a coward.”
Koplewicz further applauded Linehan’s choice to speak about her lifetime of struggles and recovery as “an opportunity to give hope to others in the same kind of hell she knew”. He emphasized that hope may not seem like the missing link, but, he wrote, “it’s absolutely critical to recovery.”
Linehan is not alone. Students in graduate school are also exploring whether to reveal their first-hand knowledge of the work they will soon practice professionally. In the January 2012 edition of the American Psychological Association’s gradPSYCH Magazine, Cassandra Willyard examined the instances of mental health problems among graduate students—and the very limited research that has been completed on the pervasiveness of mental health issues specifically in graduate psychology students.
Willyard wrote that students with interest in psychology research have been referred to as students undertaking me-search since they may have chosen their field of study to better understand their own mental health challenges. Willyard found agreement from Russell Federman, Ph.D., the Director of counseling and psychological services at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville. “I think people who are drawn towards professions such as psychology, usually their interest comes from something very personal,” Federman said.
On the topic of support for graduate psychology students to publicly expose their own mental illnesses, Federman thinks every educational program will respond differently. Graduate programs may believe "their department turns out exceptional individuals," he said in Willyard’s article. “So if one of their students discloses that he or she is struggling with mental illness, that doesn't fit into that picture of We are producing the best of the best.”
Willyard referred to the advice of John C. Norcross, Ph.D., a psychology professor at the University of Scranton in Pennsylvania, who focuses on self-care and personal therapy among psychologists. Norcross suggests, “If you do decide to disclose, wait until you've been accepted to a program to avoid any potential bias in the interview and admissions process.” In addition, Norcross emphasizes that regardless of a student’s decision to reveal his or her mental illness to faculty, self-care must take precedence.
Anna Lente, a graduate student completing her clinical mental health counseling practicum, last week wrote about the stigma surrounding counsellors (or future counselors like herself) with mental illness and self-care. After a public panic attack during a lunch with classmates, Lente realized: “I . . . came dangerously close to people finding out that this future counselor struggles with mental illness herself.”
Lente said she has encountered counsellors who disclosed their own mental illnesses or who say they have colleagues with mental health challenges. “These professionals tell me that their struggle with mental illness helps them relate to clients, and their recovery process has uniquely equipped them to be more effective,” she wrote.
Still, mental health professionals who are publicly frank, like Marsha Linehan, are still outnumbered by those who choose to keep their private struggles private. “The stigma against counselors with mental illness seems to hold people back,” Lente admits.
Carey, B., (June 23, 2011). The New York Times. Expert on Mental Illness Reveals Her Own Fight. http://www.nytimes.com/2011/06/23/health/23lives.html
Koplewicz., H., (July 8, 2011). HuffingtonPost.com. Mental Illness: When A Therapist ‘Comes Out’. https://www.huffingtonpost.com/dr-harold-koplewicz/mental-illness-stigma_b_891359.html
Randle, K., Ph.D., LCSW. (June 22, 2009). PsychCentral.com. Can I Be a Good Psychologist if I Have Mental Health Issues? https://psychcentral.com/ask-the-therapist/2009/06/22/can-i-be-a-good-psychologist-if-i-have-mental-health-issues/
Willyard., C., (January 2012). American Psychological Association, gradPSYCH Magazine. Need to heal thyself? http://www.apa.org/gradpsych/2012/01/heal.aspx