By Meghan E. Wood, M.S.
When people openly discuss mental health their first piece of advice is usually to seek out professional help. Whether that’s through a psychiatrist, a counselor, or a psychologist, the consensus is that professional help is the best way to treat mental illness. However, what happens when you’re the one struggling with mental health and you’re also the professional?
As someone who has struggled with depression and panic disorder for most of my life, this has often been an internal struggle I face whenever I am at my lowest points. I’m a “mental health professional” with years of training, and why can’t I fix myself? Why do I still struggle on a daily basis with listening to the psychoeducation I give clients about loving themselves and living authentically? And it’s never enough that I’m my own worst critic, but in addition friends and family members who want to help question why I can’t just “get over it” or try deep breathing. Suffice it to say, all of this usually combines to create the perfect storm of overwhelming self-doubt that doesn’t usually cure my depression or panic disorder despite how I wish it did.
How then do we as mental health professionals cope with our own mental health struggles? In typical therapy fashion, I don’t know if I have all the answers. Personally, I try to remind myself that I’m not alone. I read blogs like this one or seek out resources in the form of videos, TEDTalks, or other narratives in which people who are going through the same struggles as I am tell their stories. This personal research helps me to see that I am not the first nor the last person to struggle and it often provides me with ideas for reframing my situation or asking for help. Furthermore, I have two or three deeply trusted friends who are also mental health professionals that I often feel safe and comfortable reaching out to and sharing what I’m going through. They never meet me with shame or criticism and for that, I have been so grateful.
Overall, I think the thing that has helped me most in my times of struggle is the process of making meaning out of suffering. While it’s not a novel concept, it’s one that I struggle with constantly. I heard it best explained by a former supervisor who purported that suffering leads us to growth, which leads us to new and better opportunities than we had previously been exposed to. This has certainly been the case for me. Each time I have suffered and sought help, I have come away with new knowledge and insight about how I want to contribute to the society around me at large and what that means for me and my life. While this is not an Earth shattering revelation, it bears repeating that without challenge and suffering and turmoil we would cease to grow as people; and while there is something to be said for contentment, the opportunity to come into a new consciousness as a result of overcoming challenges is also exhilarating.
Fyodor Dostoyevsky said it best in Crime and Punishment when he wrote, “Pain and suffering are always inevitable for a large intelligence and a deep heart. The really great men must, I think, have great sadness on Earth.” To become great often requires trials and tribulations, but that does not mean we have to go it alone. Reach out, seek help, and above all know that (despite your status as a mental health professional) you are not immune to the same affliction of human suffering that we all experience. Take comfort in your humanity. In fact, it just might be the thing that makes you best suited for this profession above all others.