5 Stresses of Studying Counseling With Concealed Mental Illnesses

As I prepare for the spring semester, I am breathless with anticipation for the coming months. I am in my third year of a master’s program for clinical mental health counseling. Right now I am completing my practicum in our university counseling center, counseling college students.

I also have bipolar disorder, a dissociative disorder, panic disorder, and generalized anxiety disorder (GAD). My life is balancing my mental illnesses along with school and my part-time job.

As I reflect on the upcoming semester, I feel five pressures that affect my experience of graduate school. Most of my stress is about the need for me to hide my mental illness at school.

1. The pressure to pass as “normal.”

My experience of mental illness colors so much of how I live life. But in order to do well in my counseling program, I have to seem stable. We are warned that students who seem mentally unstable will be taken aside and possibly kicked out of the program.

I was in another graduate counseling program several years ago, took a year off, and then reapplied and had my application rejected. I had made the mistake of sharing my mental illnesses with professors. My professors explained that I was a liability to the school due to my history of mental illness. There is a strong stigma for bipolar disorder and dissociative identity disorder. (I have DID or something similar).

These days, when I come to school while fighting mania or dissociation, I would love to be able to share how I am. I don’t necessarily need support. I would just like to be real and stop needing to feign normalcy. Unfortunately, in order to succeed in my program, I have to pass as “normal” and mentally stable. On my bad days, I struggle to hide my symptoms.

2. The pressure to perform.

Like all grad students, I feel the pressure to perform. We need at least a B in each class to pass. It’s hard for me since my mental illnesses or psychiatric medication cause me to have difficulty focusing and remembering. That makes it difficult for me to read for class, study and stay focused in class.

When I’m manic, depressed, having panic attacks or dissociating, it’s hard for me to complete my work. Still, no matter what is going on, I need to perform well.

3. The pressure to be authentic.

As a mental health advocate, I feel pressure to be open about my story. Other advocates keep telling me I need to be brave and share my truth publicly. Since I have a unique platform as a future counselor with mental illnesses, people pressure me to raise awareness about mental illness within my counseling program.

In addition, as future counselors, we are encouraged to be authentic and vulnerable. When counseling we are encouraged to bring all of who we are to session. Behind the scenes, my classmates speak about everyday stresses as they strive to be real. But I can’t risk the consequences of being too real. It is hard since I long to be more authentic.

4. The pressure to have appropriate boundaries.

We often talk about boundaries in our counseling classes. I have always been careful with boundaries in the workplace. In our counseling program, it seems more complicated. My classmates have spoken openly in class about their anxiety, depression and difficult life experiences.

But speaking about my experience of bipolar disorder, a dissociative disorder or panic disorder seems to transcend a boundary. I have shared with a supervisor and a professor about my mental illnesses, and they have warned me not to tell anyone else.

5. The pressure to share my perspective.

I feel like I have a unique perspective as a writer, poet and artist. I always want to share my point of view. I have been studying poetry therapy and use poetry therapy with my clients. I love that I have been able to share my creativity, but sometimes I feel the pressure of always being the “innovator” who is working overtime to do things differently and have it accepted by others.

I also keep wanting to speak up about my life experiences in order to raise awareness about mental illness, break stereotypes and fight stigma. There are many times I would like to raise my hand in class to share something enlightening from my experience of mental illness, but it’s not worth the risk. The pressure remains.

Although the new semester is bringing back these pressures, it is also bringing me back excitement and joy. I truly love what I am studying and have loved working in our campus counseling center. I wish I could be open at school about my experience of mental illness, but it’s too much of a risk for me right now.

Once I finish my program and become a licensed mental health counselor, then I will have a stronger voice and potential to enrich others’ lives through my work. Someday, once I’m established as a counselor, I plan to “come out” as having mental illnesses.

Originally published on PsychCentral

We want to hear your story. Become a Mighty contributor here.

Getty Images photo via StockPhotosArt

Find this story helpful? Share it with someone you care about.

Related to Mental Health

A young girl writing in a classroom

New York First State to Require Mental Health Education in Schools

In July, New York will become the first state in the U.S. to require all schools to incorporate mental health education into their curriculum, Yahoo reported. The Mental Health Association in New York State (MHANYS) — the group that spearheaded the legislation — said a move like this was long overdue, considering other public health issues, [...]

Margot Robbie Defends the Controversial Way 'I, Tonya' Handles Domestic Violence

Since it came out in December, “I, Tonya,” the biographical comedy about figure skater Tonya Harding and her connection to the 1994 attack on rival skater Nancy Kerrigan, has been a topic of conversation for multiple reasons, including how it portrays domestic violence. Responses to the film’s comedic and irreverent tone have been mixed when [...]
couple embracing in front of misty field in fall or winter

Relationship Tips If You Have a Mental Illness

Editor’s note: If you struggle with self-harm or experience suicidal thoughts, the following post could be potentially triggering. You can contact the Crisis Text Line by texting “START” to 741741. For a list of ways to cope with self-harm urges, click here. I’ve been with my partner for four years. Before that, I’d pretty much [...]
Close up image of woman putting white round pill in mouth. Sick female taking medicines, antidepressant, painkiller or antibiotic. Young lady drinking contraceptives. Pharmacy and healthcare concept

When You're Jealous of Friends Who Don't Need Medication to Feel 'Normal'

Editor’s note: Please see a doctor before starting or stopping a medication. Imagine this. When you’re at the pharmacy you feel like you’re at a drive through window ordering takeout for the whole car. “And is that all?” The pharmacist asks, when you still have six medications left to ask for. “No” you say sheepishly [...]