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Yes, I'm Studying to Be a Social Worker. Yes, I Have a Mental Illness.

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I have a mental illness and I am studying to be a social worker.

Two distinct memories stand out as I write this: the day I was accepted into a prestigious school of social work — and the day I was diagnosed with bipolar 1 disorder. Now that I am half-way through my social work degree, I can see how those two pivotal moments in my life have collided to give me purpose and motivation to keep fighting — for my own wellness and for those who still feel silenced or marginalized.

• What is Bipolar disorder?

It started off as a nuisance. It was March of 2017, and one night I couldn’t sleep. I didn’t think much of it, chalking it up to stress. Then I didn’t sleep the next night, or the night after that. By day three, I refused to go inside because of the paranoia I was experiencing, despite it being -20 degrees Celsius outside. I developed frostbite on my toes. I wandered around the vast city I lived in without sleep or food, talking nonsensically and rapidly to anyone who would listen. I vividly remember the fourth night of being awake. It was St. Patrick’s Day and I was sprawled outside Wendy’s with nothing but spilled, cold coffee to my name. I decided I should probably see a doctor. After a rapid assessment of my presentation, my doctor sent me to the ER for an assessment by a psychiatrist, who explained I was experiencing a manic episode requiring hospitalization, proceeding to diagnose me with bipolar 1 disorder. After resting my brain for a month in the hospital, I was placed on medication that leveled out my highs and lows to allow me to lead a fulfilling life with minimal symptoms. On my discharge date, I walked out of that hospital with new hope, a fresh perspective, a calm mind and the tools to manage my illness. I have never returned.

I then decided I wanted to be a social worker so I could be a light in someone’s darkness, mirroring the people who had been a light in my own distress. Three personal essays, two references, a resume and a list of volunteer and work experiences later, my application was mailed off — on the exact deadline to apply.

When a letter arrived in the mail, I assumed the worst. I didn’t even want to open it. When I did, the only word I saw was, “Congratulations!” before I started crying. I thought, how could someone like me, mentally ill with bipolar disorder, be accepted into such a rigorous program? I questioned whether I was deserving to have that seat or not. Surely, there were other people more qualified, right?

I am writing this exactly two years after receiving that piece of paper accepting me into their program. I was chosen for this profession, not because of my illness, but because my illness is not correlated with my ability to be a good social worker. I am just as deserving to be in this program as any of my other hardworking classmates. I will soon be working in the field, dedicating my professional life to helping others.

If you have a mental illness and want to work in the helping field, please believe me when I say the following:

1. Despite the rampant stigma that somehow being mentally ill exempts you from being a health care provider, that is not true. I am proof that is not true. One of my favorite quotes is: “I love when people who have been through hell walk out of the flames carrying buckets of water for those still consumed by the fire.” Recovering from bipolar disorder felt like hell, yet those experiences have prepped me to be a caring, considerate social worker carrying those buckets of water for people behind me still in the fire. You cannot learn empathy from a book, but I certainly learned it through my experiences with bipolar. I am not grateful for this illness, but I am grateful for the lessons it has taught me.

2. Living with a mental illness does not make you incompetent. It may even give you a leg up because you can understand, deeply, what it means to struggle. You can relate to clients/patients/customers in a way that will make them trust you, talk to you and have confidence in you.

3. View your illness as a strength, not a weakness. Remember, it’s not a character flaw.

4. If you have bipolar or any other mental illness, that is out of your control and not your fault. You can control making the choice to live your life passionately despite of, and because of, your illness.

Yes, I have bipolar disorder.

Yes, I was admitted to a psychiatric facility when I was sick. Yes, I take medication every day to regulate my mood. Yes, I see a psychiatrist.

Yes, I made the Dean’s list. Yes, I have been appointed to the School’s student committee. Yes, I volunteer with non-profits, work with people with disabilities and sit on a board of directors.

I will not be just a social worker. I will be an understanding, empathetic, passionate, mentally ill social worker.

And that is more than OK.

Whatever your dream is, never let the fear of accomplishing it with a mental illness hold you back. Your illness is part of you — take it with you, but do not let it dictate where you go.

Getty image via pogorelova

Originally published: August 28, 2019
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