This phrase, used once in the New Testament (the book of Luke), is actually attributed further back in time to Aeschylus, the Greek poet and tragedian (525 BC – 456 BC). In other words, this axiom is as old as the tragic tales of heroes who did not heed this advice, who continued on trajectories that readers knew would lead to doom. Yet, like the audiences of old, we stay tuned. We hope for a different outcome for our heroes when, sadly, even tragically, we anticipate what will happen next with a certain degree of dread.
In this day and age, graduate students of Psychology are expected to undergo some form of psychotherapy as they pursue their degrees. It is an exercise in empathy as well as self-awareness. After all, someday the student will be the authority, and their patients/clients will want to feel safe and understood. It is not strictly about self-care, however. This exercise is largely intended to humanize authority—I understand how you feel. I really do! Most students enter their fields with enthusiasm and hope, after all. Still, it can come across as a clinical approach, rather than a human approach. These are students, and students are supposed to “learn” about a subject, even if the subject is their own self.
For better or for worse, psychologists, therapist, psychiatrists, educators—all those who enter the mental health care field—are human. While some may take their life experiences and believe they can make a difference “because of” the challenges they have faced or may currently face, others struggle with their human identity, striving to maintain an aura of objectivity in a field that is often highly subjective. There are facts that we “know” of course about the brain as seen in MRIs and fMRIs, there are documented histories and object case studies, yet perception—personal experience, bias, and circumstance—is key to interpreting those facts.
According to a survey conducted by the American Psychological Association (APA) in 2009, about 87% of graduate students pursuing careers in mental health suffer from one or more mental health challenges themselves, including a startling number of suicidal thoughts (19%). Russell Federman, PhD, the former Director of Counseling and Psychological Services at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville, suggested (in a 2012 article published by the APA) that people may be drawn to psychology because of their personal experiences. In the field of psychology, this is commonly referred to as “me-search.” Ask any student of psychology, and they will often say they have learned so much about themselves as well as about the world of others, and will say so with great energy. Yet, while California’s Student Mental Health Committee has suggested that there are more complex mental health issues than ever with which all students struggle, the unfortunate fact is that students feel there remains a certain level of bias towards those with mental illness among those who would treat it. That is, if you’re a student and you’re suffering from depression, you may not want to admit it to your professors for fear of censure or suspicion.
Having served in the education and mental health professions for 30 odd years, this author has seen this scenario played out many times. I have witnessed mental health professionals burn out, tune out, and/or turn off to the point of worn down belief systems, increased defense through offense, and unfathomable depths of helplessness and hopelessness. I have seen professionals reduced to energy vampires, using their clients and/or colleagues for their self-care at the expense of, rather than in support of, others.
I have seen this, that is, in some people.
By contrast, I have seen amazing levels of resiliency, gratitude, enthusiasm, kindness, and even an unstaunched flow of energy from the majority of my colleagues—psychologists, residential life counselors, teachers, nurses, therapists, ancillary staff, and CEOs. Many of these folks have suffered their entire lives with different mental health issues of their own or have suffered the illnesses of loved ones. They have their tough days. But they never, never, never give up, as Churchill would say. They rise each day and push forward. They count their blessings. What makes the difference, perhaps, is their willingness to reach out. This is not about a “pity party” but about healthy self-care. The most effective among all humans are those who reach out to peers, to loved ones, regardless of someone else’s perception of what mental health means. These folks know that mental health “self-care” is as important as physical healthcare.
Kay Redfield Jamison is a professor of Psychiatry at Johns Hopkins and has written information pertinent to the medical treatment of conditions such as Bipolar Disorder. Marsha Linehan, the brilliant, creative mind behind DBT therapy, developed this now industry wide practice to help herself through her own struggles. Temple Grandin has pioneered the field in understanding those with Autism based upon her own struggles. Dr. Jamison has written about medical treatment, acknowledging her own battle to take her medication as part of her own treatment, and founded the Affective Disorders Clinic at UCLA. As Jenna Baddeley wrote in 2011, Linehan’s experience was a catalyst for personal change, and it had the monumental impact of helping countless others. Dr. Grandin has moved within and between two widely divergent industries (agriculture and mental health) to improve our understanding of social anxiety and how others perceive the world, and in the process has worked to increase our empathy towards other living creatures.
Now you no longer have to sit on the edge of your seat and feel that sense of dread. We can have a different, more productive ending to the story. Heroines and heroes can strive, and they can do so in a healthy manner. The only real tragedy remains in society’s continued failure to acknowledge the prevalence of mental illness at all levels and in its unwillingness to provide appropriate care for all who need help—including, perhaps most importantly, help for the caregivers. Still, there will always be those who rise above circumstance and happenstance, and to those intrepid souls we extend our sincere gratitude.