When you are living with mental illness, such as depression and anxiety, the idea of becoming a counselor might seem counterproductive. How can you possibly help others with their issues when you’re battling your own demons?
The fact is, though, that a significant number of mental health professionals are drawn to the field because of their own experiences. In fact, according to one study, more than 60 percent of therapists have been clinically depressed at some point in their lives, and other research has indicated higher than average rates of divorce, substance abuse, suicide and other trauma among those in the mental health field. While theories vary as to the causes of these issues, ranging from the stresses of the field (including both patients and the business aspects of practicing medicine, i.e., dealing with insurance companies) to specific incidents with patients (about 40 percent report being attacked by a patient at some point), the fact remains that the mental health professions attract those who have suffered.
Although many mental health professionals are reluctant to reveal their own issues out of concern for it diminishing their professional credibility, that stigma is slowly disappearing. As society becomes more comfortable discussing mental health issues, and more people reveal their issues – and successes – the idea that a counselor or therapist needs to be in perfect mental health is diminishing. Therapists with experience with mental health issues of their own can provide hope and encouragement as they become more relatable to their clients and allow them to release the shame that often comes with a mental illness. As Russell Federman, Ph.D., the director of counseling and psychological services at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville, says “I think people who are drawn towards professions such as psychology, usually their interest comes from something very personal.”
Turning the Personal Professional
The problem, experts note, is that while students are drawn to programs like an online master’s in mental health counseling, that doesn’t necessarily mean that they are capable of dealing with their own issues. Research shows that people, even those with a background in psychology, are very poor at self-assessment. In the realm of counseling and counseling education, this might manifest as students believing they have their issues under control, when they really don’t. The simple fact that there have been myriad articles and books written about the mental health crisis on college campuses, and that the problems are particularly severe among graduate students (including those in psychology) is evidence that there is still a lot of work to do when it comes to fostering good mental health.
Those issues can overflow into practice as well. Counselors and those in training need to be particularly aware of how their own personal experiences influence their practice. For example, some of the issues that have occurred with counselors include:
- Turning sessions or therapy into discussions of their issues. Determining how much to reveal about your own issues can be tricky, as you run the risk of overtaking the treatment with your experiences.
- Students often find that studying can provoke episodes of anxiety or depression. Some counselors may be triggered by certain conversations with patients.
- Counselors may be unwilling to seek help when they need it, either because they aren’t aware of what is happening or because they think they have the skills and tools to manage on their own.
These problems do not happen to everyone, but they are important for students to be aware of.
The Bottom Line
Ultimately, just because some people have experience with mental illness themselves doesn’t mean they aren’t in a position to help others. By the same token, just because they have experience in this realm doesn’t mean that they will automatically be “better” or more effective counselors or therapists. The most important thing is to work toward becoming as psychologically healthy as possible and be willing to work on yourself as well as helping patients. It’s important to practice what you preach and develop skills in self-stabilization and management. When you do, you can provide good advice to your patients and help them be as mentally healthy and productive as possible.
Author Bio: Tiffany Rowe is a contributor writer for OnlineCounselingPrograms.com, a resource that provides current and relevant resources for individuals looking to make a conscientious choice in their counseling careers.
The opinions and views expressed in this guest blog do not necessarily reflect those of www.rtor.org or its sponsor, Laurel House, Inc. The author and www.rtor.org have no affiliations with any products or services mentioned in this article or linked to herein.
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