Experience into practice: working in mental health
Posted Wednesday 9 November 2011
Ally is training to be a clinical psychologist. Here she writes about bringing her own unique experience of mental health problems to her work and of other mental health professionals who have done the same.
I wanted to understand what it is that makes people ill and how we can help them to recover. However, not too long after this point, I became ill myself.
Luckily, following years of support from both professionals and my family and friends, I feel a lot better and well enough to pursue my chosen career. I've recently been accepted onto a clinical psychology training program, which I'm excited to start.
I've often felt scared about revealing my history, in case it might be used as grounds to deny me a job. However, I've tried to be open and honest with employers, and so far this has never been an issue.
If statistics are to be believed, one in four people experience mental health problems at some point in their lives. People who work in health are by no means immune to this.
Indeed, doctors and nurses have some of the highest suicide rates of any occupation. Yet it isn't something people talk about.
I have heard that people with a history of mental health problems 'shouldn't' work in mental health, that they would somehow not be able to be as objective, impartial, unattached as their 'normal' co-workers.
No one would ever suggest that a nurse who has had cancer should not work on an oncology ward, yet for mental health this sort of attitude seems to linger.
The notion of 'normal' employees is a bit of a myth. Everyone has times in their life when they struggle and this has an impact on their ability to work. The work can bring up personal feelings in anyone.
I remember a manager once telling me, "On the day you don't feel capable of doing your job, that's the day you don't come in," and this has stayed with me.
It is important that you recognise your limitations, and sometimes this can mean waiting until you are feeling a lot better before entering work. But if you feel confident and well enough to work, the fact that you have a history of mental health problems shouldn't be a barrier.
Good supervision and understanding from colleagues helps me to keep my personal and professional life separate.
Dr Marsha Lineham, credited with developing DBT (dialectal behavioural therapy), one of the most effective treatments for people with borderline personality disorder, has spoken about her own experiences with the disorder and how they motivated her to bring a new perspective to treatment:
“I made a vow: when I get out, I’m going to come back and get others out of here.” And she isn't the only one.
Empathy is vital to my work. I see my experiences as giving me a unique perspective that helps me to generate ideas about how I can better meet individuals' needs.
Rufus May, a clinical psychologist who was hospitalised for psychosis as a teenager, was motivated to enter the field by his own experiences. He writes:
"Motivated by the poor care I received and witnessed, I decided to train as a psychologist so that I might influence change in therapeutic approaches in the mental health system."
I see my experiences of being on the 'other side of the desk', of handling diagnoses, medication, long waiting lists, being misunderstood and misrepresented, as the kind of work experience you can't be taught.
I've been very inspired by seeing other mental health professionals speak out about their own experiences of mental health problems.
These professionals have made amazing contributions to the field of mental health, not just in spite of their problems, but they have used their experiences to go above and beyond the already existing material.
I hope that they are helping to create a culture in which we value the amazing contributions and skills individuals with mental health problems can bring to the field of mental health. It's something I hope to be a part of, going into the future.
Follow Ally on Twitter @allyablaze
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