Stigma and the Mental Health Profession

I’ve worked in the mental health field for nearly 30 years this coming Fall.  I would like to say that the majority of mental health professionals I’ve come in contact with carry a lesser amount of stigma when it comes to mental illness in their peers.  However, in my nearly 30 years of experience, I have found that there are “acceptable” and “unacceptable” forms of mental illness that people are wiling to share around the proverbial “water cooler” in the various mental field agencies I have worked at across our state an where the line is, in terms of severity acceptance, in those diagnoses that have come to be okay to admit you have.  For example,  It is not uncommon to hear a co-worker admit that they have a diagnosis of anxiety, depression, and/or ADHD.  It is not common to hear someone talk about Major Depressive Episodes, Panic Attacks, or ADHD that is difficult to control.  Your personal experience may differ from mine, but in 4 of the 5 agencies I have worked for to mention that one have a diagnosis of Bipolar 1 Disorder is a near death sentence.  People question your ability to do your job despite demonstrated ability to perform nearly 99.0% while taking sick leave or FMLA leave when unable to not handle your job duties.  Again, my personal experience over time has been to be questioned whether I needed to be on disability.  This discounting the highly positive comments from my clients and their supports.

I was actually taught by my supervisors to drop myself at the door when I first began working in mental health and focus solely on the clients without any emotional response.  I call it being “Polished and Shined and Everything’s Fine.”  This type of philosophy eventually carried over into my personal life and made it harder and harder to share my emotions with others despite teaching the skills to others about how to do so all day long.  I am better able to write out or journal my feelings or create art with my emotions than express them to another human being, especially if it requires me to ask someone for help. It has impacted my relationship skills with my clients and even with my current supervisor.

I think that the mental health community needs more supports.  The HR Research shows that 1:5 employs has a mental illness every year.  The Same NIH research showed that employers did not want to talk about mental health issues of their employees though even if they offered an EAP.  Much work needs to be done in our field so we stop eating our own and start embracing the principles we preach to those we serve.

W.L.

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