Stigma, Mental Health and Being a Therapist

I’m back to pondering about my comfortable spot on Twitter, engaging with the kind of thinkers, musers and (largely) therapists who inspire me, whom I can relate to and who frankly affirm my world view.

Therapists such as Steph Jones are blazing a trail when it comes to talking about our mental health as therapists. I think it takes a great deal of courage to talk so openly about personal struggle, and I think it important that we recognise the value of our experiences as therapists, whilst of course, remaining mindful of how they might impact our therapeutic work.

My therapist once said to me that my experiences are likely to be the source of my greatest strengths AND my greatest vulnerabilities as a practitioner, and this curious dualism is present in my awareness and my process as a practitioner, as a client and as a supervisee.

In the short time I have been on Twitter, I have seen Steph’s work towards raising awareness of therapists’ mental health go from strength to strength; recently I read her brilliant piece in Therapy Today. She is being heard and that is wonderful. We are talking about our mental health, and the outpouring of support for this topic has been heartwarming. But yet, anecdotally I am still hearing stories of unsupportive colleagues and fellow trainees. I am hearing that judgements on therapists’ competence to practice are being made on the basis of diagnoses, and I think these anecdotal instances indicate that there is still a worrying misconception in some areas about what makes a good practitioner, and the nature of mental health difficulties. While decisions are rightly made about competence at an educational level, employment level, supervisory level and at a personal level, sweeping generalisations, where they still exist are unhelpful and damaging. It is for this reason that I believe we need to be discussing this topic more. We are all managing our mental health. Every human being is managing their mental health. Any therapist who believes themselves to be invulnerable to mental health difficulties is, in my opinion, even more vulnerable to not recognising their own mental health needs, and perhaps susceptible to denial too.

Therapists sometimes say “therapists are human too” and that phrase makes me cringe a little. As I write this, I pause to think about why I have such a response to that idea, and I think it is because of the inference that there is an assumed superhuman quality to therapists. Perhaps it is true that some people do believe therapists to be beyond human vulnerability, and I think I must own my own discomfort when that notion is acknowledged. I am aware that one of my core personal processes centres around rebellion against, and rejection of hierarchical power-dynamics in relationships, therefore it stands to reason that I should feel an intense discomfort around the notion of being thought of as having somehow figured out the secret to eternal happiness. This, of course, is mine to manage and I will undoubtedly further reflect on what is emerging for me as I write this.

As a profession I think we are very good at talking about self-care and yet sometimes less keen to explore why self-care is so important. Burnout, vicarious trauma, and emergence of unresolved material in our own processes all happen, and can be harmful to both ourselves and our clients if we do not address them. I feel that we are headed in the right direction – we are starting to speak up, we are engaging with personal therapy when we need to, we are talking about self-care. I think the key to changing attitudes within the profession is in challenging misconceptions and continuing to speak the truth. As therapists we have the right and responsibility to co-create the kind of profession we want to be a part of.

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