6 Things I Wish I Knew About Being a Social Worker With a Mental Illness


1. Having a mental illness is a unique qualification, not something you need to hide.

In 1997, I was diagnosed with depression. This led to other diagnoses: bipolar disorder,  borderline personality disorder (BPD), attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Throughout my teens and early 20s, I was in mental health treatment. When I became a social worker in my late 20s, I often felt like an outsider, that my past was something I needed to hide.

There were meetings where people would make sweeping generalizations based on a diagnosis alone. People would talk as if it were impossible that anyone else in the room could have a diagnosis (despite the statistical improbability of that.) There was an advisor who shared her shock and horror upon finding out that a prior student had BPD.

This was before Dr. Marsha Linehan, founder of dialetical behavioral therapy, famously came out as a person who struggled with BPD. This was also before I discovered there are people who are trained to draw on their experience of mental health recovery to support others and shape programs and policies. Peer Specialists serve as living, breathing proof that people can get better.

2. Sharing is scary, but worth it.

The first time I shared my recovery story was at a meeting of our statewide peer-run agency, The Transformation Center. I was shaky and choked on the words, but when I finished talking, people clapped and cheered. I will never forget how supported and understood I felt in that moment. It’s a powerful experience to be in a room of people who are open about their experiences.

When people ask, “How are you doing?” “I’m trying a new medication,” is a perfectly acceptable response. People will likely commiserate. There are a lot of negative beliefs associated with mental health conditions. We know this. We can change this.

3. It’s OK to explore until you find a good fit.

Our Human Services aren’t perfect. Even in the best setting, you will likely bump up against service gaps, policy failures and other constraints of the larger system. Ideally, you will find a way to channel that frustration into positive change. Yet, there may be times when you find yourself in a job that just isn’t working out.

For me, it was the hospice job that made me cry (in bathroom stalls, at home after work and, finally, openly during a staff meeting). Then, there was a workplace with uncomfortable power dynamics between the staff and people served. This was particularly painful, and at the time, I lacked the internal and external resources to cope. With so little work experience under my belt, at each of these junctures, I doubted myself. Yet, when I look back, I see how these experiences led to something better.

If your own well-being is at stake, then look for another setting. Social work jobs are plentiful. You might lose a few battles, but you can win the war.

4. We are all faking it until we make it.

One morning during my first year internship at a high school, I was running late. I was still trying to figure out how to dress “like a professional.” I wore pants from the juniors department that dragged on the ground and heels I’d bought, even though they were more than a size too big because they were on sale. I rushed through the halls with a box of doughnut holes and a coffee, tripped and literally fell out of my too big shoes. I lied face down on the floor in my socks, a river of coffee running through doughnut holes scattered on the floor.

When I told some other interns about it later, they shared their own stories of missteps. If you’ve been told that there is something wrong with you, then it can feel like these things only happen to you. They don’t. Imposter syndrome is real, even for the most seemingly put together people. If you fall down, then take a few moments on the floor if you need to. Then, dust yourself off and get back in the game!

5. Wellness is a process.

It’s not our job to be perfect. We are all doing this work together. With any luck, what you get back will be so much more than you give.

For the past seven years, I have worked with older adults living in the community. I have listened to stories of World War II and Vietnam, firsthand accounts of Doors and Beatles concerts, fighting for civil rights and of what life was like in other counties. I have heard stories of triumphs and defeats, of love lost and gained. I have taken trainings on mindfulness and breathing practices for anxiety and depression, where I learned powerful ways of clearing racing thoughts and slowing a speeding pulse that can be done anytime, anywhere. I recently completed a postgraduate certificate in Expressive Art Therapy. My work experience and training have helped me grow and heal in ways I could never have imagined.

6. By owning your experiences, we empower ourselves and others.

It takes guts, strength and determination to put yourself out there. Yet, if you are living with a mental health condition or in recovery, then you’ve got that. On the horizon, there is new day of mental health and wellness supports that foster hope and healing, where we can all look beyond diagnostic axis to see people’s hidden strength and dreams. You — yes, you — have a vital role to play.

Tell your story. Organize a panel from a local peer organization organization at your workplace or get trained as a speaker from a program like NAMI In Our Own Voice. Become a certified Peer Specialist. Each state has different requirements and trainings. Look up details of your state’s program online or find local consumer-driven organizations.

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