Psychologists Struggle Too: How Shame Keeps Us Silent By Shannon Swales on 1/3/24 - 7:59 AM

Nothing breeds shame more than silence. If something is not spoken about or represented in our systems (e.g., family, workplace, industry), it can be considered wrong. This is why I have devoted my life to speaking out about mental health and, more recently, done so on a public stage as a psychologist who has experienced mental illness. I want to demystify the experience of mental illness in mental health professionals so they don’t suffer in silence, because we are, like the rest of the population, only human. However, it hasn’t always been that way for me.

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Back in the 80s and 90s, when I was growing up, there were no representations or discussions of mental health or mental illness within the systems I was exposed to. The only thing you did hear was people being locked up because they were “crazy” or hearing the message that “you are weak if you have a mental illness.” And no one was talking about looking after their mental health, only physical health.

Struggling with Depression

So, when I struggled with my own mental health and eventually experienced clinical depression in my early 20s, I had no idea what was going on, and I didn’t dare speak up for fear of being seen as “less than.” I only received help when my partner contacted my parents for help, as he didn’t know what to do. While I did recover, I did so mostly on my own. I didn’t talk about it to others. I held a lot of shame for being depressed for many years.

Fast forward to my early 40s, early 2021. The world has changed drastically with how mental health and illness are represented and discussed, and I have about 20 years of study and working in the mental health arena under my belt. I now know differently that mental health is essential to care for, and mental illness is not a sign of weakness.

But despite all this, I once again suffered mentally, that time with a combination of burnout, vicarious trauma, and compassion fatigue. You would think that I would have reached out and spoken about my struggles this time with all that I knew and had learnt from my previous experience, but I kept quiet. I didn’t dare say anything because, once again, I felt deeply ashamed.

I felt ashamed and suffered silently for a couple of reasons. First, I believed that psychologists shouldn’t get mentally ill. I thought that, as a psychologist, I should have known better. I should have been able to prevent it. I thought that it somehow meant that I was not a capable psychologist. The other reason that compounded the first was that there was no representation or discussion of psychologists becoming mentally ill or working while managing their mental health or mental illness.

None of my peers, mentors, or senior psychologists ever discussed it. It was all under the radar and not out there for all to see. Outside of encouraging us to care for ourselves and seek professional help when needed, no psychologist or mental health professional I came across in training spoke of their own experiences of mental health struggles. Most likely, they didn’t feel safe to do so because nobody did for them. It wasn’t normalised or validated enough to feel safe to talk about it.

Speaking Out and Sharing Humanness

I only started speaking out about my mental health struggles as a psychologist when I began seeing a supervisor who could provide an environment where I felt safe to disclose my struggles. She was different from other supervisors I had. She was interested in my experiences and what was going on for me in the context of my work. She helped me to recognise my mental illness and take the necessary steps to recovery. She never made me feel like I was “less than,” nor did the psychologist I eventually saw for therapy.

More importantly, they both shared their humanness with me, their struggles, enough to help me debunk my belief that psychologists should be able to prevent their own mental illnesses. These experiences gave me the courage to share mine more with others, and as I did, I discovered that many psychologists and other professionals were also struggling with their mental health and changing how they worked to care for their mental health. It helped me drop the shame I had held for being a psychologist with mental illness.

Having had such a powerful experience of having my mental illness normalised by other people in my field, it became a passion of mine to pay it forward; to continue to change the culture of mental health professionals to one where we can talk freely about our mental health and what we need to take care of it; to recognise mental illness and support each other through it. I now share my mental illness story wide and far through various mediums, writing blog articles, appearing on podcasts, producing a lived-experience podcast, publishing my memoir, and providing therapy to fellow clinicians and others from different professions suffering from burnout.

I still fear sharing my story with fellow psychologists. I know this comes from being someone out on the fringe of my profession speaking out about this, but more robust than my fear is my compassion to help fellow mental health professionals drop any shame with struggling mentally. I can do that by sharing my mental illness experiences and mental health struggles. I don’t want another fellow psychologist or anyone to suffer in silence. We are only human.

File under: Musings and Reflections