Mental Health Professionals Are Fighting Stigma by Opening up About Their Own Struggles

Photo: Getty Images / Filippo Bacci
When it comes to mental health, everyone has periods in their life where they need to raise their hands and ask for help—and therapists are no exception. A 2010 survey from the American Psychological Association found that 51 percent of practitioners believe their work has been impacted by burnout, anxiety, or depression. Another survey found that 61 percent of psychologists report experiencing clinical depression at least once in their lives. Psychologists, like other medical professionals, also face high rates of suicide.

It's widely acknowledged that talking about mental illness helps de-stigmatize it. And as the national conversation about mental health has shifted (if 2017 was the year stretch marks were made cool, 2018 was definitely the year talking about mental health went mainstream) some mental health experts have found that talking openly about their experiences with depression, anxiety, and grief is both cathartic for themselves and can improve their relationships with their clients and colleagues.

“I definitely tell patients that I’ve gone to therapy,” says Los Angeles-based psychologist Sarah Neustadter, PhD, author of the forthcoming Love You Like the Sky: Surviving the Suicide of a Beloved. “It’s not necessarily something that’s taboo. I’m pretty transparent with my clients about what has made me who I am as a therapist.”

Dr. Neustadter has been open about the death of her boyfriend, who died by suicide, and says her patients have reacted well to finding out that she’s also gone to a therapist. “Some clients will say, ‘Oh wow, you’re really doing a great job; I’ve had some really bad therapists,’ and I’ll laugh with them and say, ‘Trust me, I’ve seen some pretty bad ones myself.’” She thinks her patients are receptive to hearing about her personal experiences because they’re already in therapy: “If a client is already in the door coming to me, they’re pretty open to it and the idea that you might see your own therapist [needing therapy] isn’t that foreign of a concept to them.”

"For me to be able to say, ‘Hey, I’ve been in similar situations and can relate to that,’ can not only improve the relationship but also make patients feel like they’re not alone." —Emily Roberts, LPC

New York-based therapist Emily Roberts, LPC, agrees. Because mental health struggles can be so isolating, Roberts says opening up about her anxiety creates a sense of solidarity between her and her patients. "For me to be able to say, ‘Hey, I’ve been in similar situations and can relate to that,’ can not only improve the relationship but also make them feel like they’re not alone," she says.

Part of this new openness may be due to social media, which Roberts says has helped change professional norms. In an age where everyone and everything is a ~*brand*~ many therapists rely on social media to promote their practice or services—and in some cases, to openly talk about their mental health struggles. “It really allows people to get to know you, because they’re investing in you too,” Roberts says. “It’s a relationship.”

However, revealing the details of one's personal life is tricky territory for mental health professionals. Generally, psychiatrists and other experts are taught that self-disclosure can be a useful way to help patients open up and address their issues—provided that it doesn't prevent them from being objective or otherwise get in the way of a person's treatment. That means that the therapist has to be self-aware enough not to “put their issues on their client,” says Virginia Beach-based social worker and counselor Charese Josie. That's why she says she only talks about her anxiety with patients with whom she has a good rapport, or with those who might otherwise be hesitant about the idea of counseling.

Opening up is ultimately a judgement call. “I was trained that a therapist needs to make choices about self-disclosure based on whether it will benefit the client, so that’s the rule of thumb I use to guide me,” says Toronto-based psychotherapist and co-founder of Balancing Bravely Beth Scarlett. She recounts a time she took a 14-week stress-related leave of absence due to anxiety. Although her clients weren’t told why, she thinks some of them were able to put it together. “I trust that some clients will appreciate that I have had some similar struggles...For [others] I suspect that disclosure would cause them to worry about me, so I don't share,” she says.

"If we ‘pretend’ that mental health professionals are beyond being susceptible to mental health conditions, it contributes to the narrative of blaming individuals for their mental health diagnosis." —Beth Scarlett, psychotherapist

Unfortunately, practitioners talking openly about their mental health can also come with potential professional repercussions. A 2017 study found that 40 percent of physicians said they'd be reluctant to seek treatment for their mental health issues because they're afraid it would affect their ability to retain a medical license. This isn't an idle fear—some state's medical boards require physicians to disclose mental illness diagnoses on their license applications or renewal forms. And ironically, there can be stigma about mental illness amongst the very professionals who treat it: In an article for The Lancet, Kay Redfield Jemison, Ph.D., a psychologist who has long been outspoken about her bipolar disorder, recalls colleagues saying that she should have kept her diagnosis private, while others acted "embarrassed" around her. Professionals with schizophrenia and other severe mental illnesses also report skepticism from colleagues that they're capable of effectively doing their jobs.

Despite this, none of the mental health experts I talked to say they've experienced blowback within their professional communities; instead, opening up helps them feel supported. Josie says that it actually wasn’t until a colleague of hers mentioned that he was on Xanax that she realized that she was suffering from anxiety. “I felt glad that he shared that with me; it made me realize there was something going on with me," she says. The conversation inspired her to go to therapy and seek out treatment. LaQuista Erinna, a New Jersey-based clinical social worker, adds that she’s recently seen an uptick in colleagues opening up to one another about their own experiences or joining support groups online. “You’re processing so much with clients and patients that you have to have an outlet or a safe place to process those feelings and thoughts,” she explains.

Ultimately, despite the potential setbacks, many therapists feel that discussing their own challenges is a vital part of breaking down stigma and shame in the mental health community. “If we ‘pretend’ that mental health professionals are beyond being susceptible to mental health conditions, it contributes to the narrative of blaming individuals for their mental health diagnosis,” Scarlett says. “Is an oncologist immune from getting cancer? If I hide my struggles out of fear, then I am contributing to the stigma.”

Why the next step in combatting mental health stigma is giving minorities a seat at the table. And if you're looking for manageable ways to prioritize your mental well-being, you should try our 30-day mental wellness challenge.

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