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Why Mental Health Professionals Neglect Our Own Mental Health

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I have been a mental health professional for seven years. I wanted to work in the sector because I have my own experiences of mental health problems. As a mental health patient, I knew I wanted to help people just like me.

This sounds very lovely, but it can be a toxic way of thinking. My desire to help people just like me came with a lot of pressure. And I was the one putting pressure on myself.

For seven years, I have given my all in the mental health field. And it’s been wonderful. I have seen people at rock bottom recover to the point where they no longer needed my support. But there have been many people I haven’t been able to help, and this has been soul-destroying.

I was able to keep my head above water until the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic hit. The way I was used to working changed overnight. I had to work from home and speak to patients over the phone. It was very difficult to assess how they were really feeling because I couldn’t see them. It was also very difficult to give the standard of treatment I could give them face-to-face. I began to feel my mental health declining. The impact of lockdown started to take its toll on me. I’d recently had a baby and was trying to navigate motherhood in a world that was very scary. I became afraid to go outside on my own. I felt panicky all the time. I was finding I was giving advice to patients about managing anxiety that I wasn’t able to put into practice myself at all. I felt like a hypocrite. And most of all, I felt like a failure.

In caring for others, I forget to care for myself. As much as mental health professionals seem to have all the answers, we are only human. And we get sick too.

According to a survey by the British Psychological Society, 46% of psychologists and psychotherapists experience depression. In a survey conducted by Medical Protection, it was found that 85% of doctors have experienced some form of mental health issues. The suicide rate amongst medical professionals is higher than in other occupations, particularly amongst female health care workers.

Although mental illness is prevalent in health care professions, it isn’t widely talked about. Despite the fact I work in the mental health sector, I found it very difficult to admit I was struggling. I have observed other colleagues with the same issue and refusing to label what is clearly depression or anxiety and instead call it “stress.” We spend our working life encouraging people to ask for help, so why can’t we do the same for ourselves? In Depression in Nurses: The Unspoken Epidemic, Lynda Lampert writes:

“One of the most prominent reasons for nurses to keep quiet about their mental health is the stigma associated with an ‘unhealthy’ caregiver. Martinez describes it this way: ‘Nurses feel they need to be perfect and healthy at all times. It is just not possible when they are doing so much for someone else. Openly talking about it is the only way to break the cycle, but no one talks about it. When they do talk about it, it takes away stigma and shame.’”

Reaching out for help was one of the bravest things I have ever done. I have even more respect for patients who are able to admit they are struggling. I am anxious about how I will be perceived. Will I be seen as unable to cope under pressure? Will I be seen as less reliable and trustworthy?

That is a possibility. But it’s important to remember who we are outside of mental health issues. I am hard-working. I am competent. Getting sick doesn’t change my natural personality. And if people can’t see that at first, then that proves why it’s so important that I admitted I was struggling. There is a stigma and it will only be broken if people like me are open and honest.

I have been off work for a couple of months and have devoted my time to recovery. Although I have anxieties, I am looking forward to going back to work with a much healthier attitude about my own mental health. I have learned I cannot care for others if I don’t care for myself first. It’s not selfish to make my mental health a priority. If I am the best version of myself, I can give better support to patients.

This pandemic is difficult for key workers such as mental health professionals because people are depending on us to support others who are struggling when this new way of life is difficult for us too. It’s very easy to neglect ourselves and forget we have needs when there are so many expectations placed on us.

As professionals, we need to remember we are not “other.” Mental illness does not discriminate. It isn’t something that just happens to the people we support. It can happen to anyone. It can happen to us. And it often does. We cannot say we are passionate about reducing mental health stigma when we actively stigmatize ourselves. We need to talk about it and we need to support our fellow professionals to talk about it too.

Mental health professionals are not superhuman. And the people who need reminding of that the most are mental health professionals themselves.

A version of this article was previously published on Medium.

Getty Images photo via MangoStar Studio

Originally published: October 7, 2020
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