In recent years, openness about mental health struggles has been widely normalized, thanks in large part to celebrities, influencers and average folks sharing their lives and experiences on social media.
Ironically, though, therapists disclosing their own mental health struggles or illness is still stigmatized by many in the mental health community.
For instance, when she published a memoir that included her bipolar disorder diagnosis, Dr. Kay Redfield Jamison experienced negative reactions from many of her peers in the mental health field, with some saying she should have kept quiet about her condition, while others seemed to no longer know how to talk to her.
Renowned psychology professor and author Stephen Hinshaw believes that this may come down to an “us vs. them” mentality: “We are the healthy ones, the healers, while they are the patients who are ill and need to be healed. And if you are ill, you are not one of ‘us,’ you are one of ‘them,’ and not fit to be a practicing psychologist or psychiatrist.”
The trend does seem to be changing, however. For instance, Dr. Jamison also received supportive letters from hundreds of other colleagues. Many of them shared that they also suffered from mental illness and had experienced prejudice from other mental health professionals.
Recently, Andrew Devendorf, a doctoral candidate and Sarah Victor, an assistant professor of psychology, conducted a survey of nearly 1700 people in the mental health field, which asked questions about respondents’ mental health and how the mental health of their colleagues is perceived.
More than 80% of respondents had experienced mental health struggles. 48% had been diagnosed with a mental illness. Devendorf and Victor point out that this is nearly identical to statistics for the general population. In other words, you could say it’s an important reminder that therapists are human beings first.
The survey also found that despite the stigma in their field, 95% of respondents who had mental health struggles and 80% with a mental illness said that they had no problems or mild problems when it came to their work.
While it might be easy to imagine a therapist managing something like anxiety, some might wonder about less common mental illnesses, such as schizophrenia. In a fascinating in-depth article about professionals speaking out about their mental health, prestigious scholar and psychiatrist Dr. Elyn Saks shared her experience as a mental health professional with schizophrenia. When she was diagnosed, Saks’ advisors had faith that she was capable of recognizing symptoms of psychosis in herself and not seeing patients during those times, and she was able to continue her career.
For Devendorf and Victor, “experiencing mental illness is not by any means a barrier to being a capable and effective psychologist.” In fact, many people believe that it can even be an advantage.
In a Quora thread, therapist Asher James says that he prefers to refer clients to therapists who have the same mental illness as they do. James writes:
[F]or therapists without a diagnosis, it's going to be a tough sell for me to believe that they really, deeply, understand both the suffering and the humanity of mentally ill clients. Rationally, I think that's possible. Emotionally, at a gut level, though? It just makes me a little edgy.
For Dr. Beth Scarlett, being open about her own struggles with anxiety is akin to a duty:
If we ‘pretend’ that mental health professionals are beyond being susceptible to mental health conditions, it contributes to the narrative of blaming individuals for their mental health diagnosis…. Is an oncologist immune from getting cancer? If I hide my struggles out of fear, then I am contributing to the stigma.
Quoted in the same article, counselor Emily Roberts feels that honesty about mental health issues is beneficial, and maybe even expected, on social media. Sharing her struggles with anxiety has allowed her to build a strong relationship with followers and patients, and can let new patients get to know her better.
Prejudice from fellow mental health experts still exists - you only have to read the articles linked here to find many examples of it. But whenever someone speaks out, it helps to break it a little.
When reporting on the results of their survey, Devendorf and Victor took the time to include this powerful statement:
Having personal experience with mental health challenges reminds us why our work has meaning and is worth the struggle: to help and improve the lives of real people dealing with real traumas and real emotional struggles.
It might seem like the increasing number of mental health professionals who are speaking out about their mental health, as well as social media trends and the public’s desire for honesty and connection, will be able to radically change the way many mental health professionals still think about mental health. But will the “us vs. them” mentality ultimately win the day and maintain the status quo? It will be interesting to see what the coming years hold.