Statistics say that one in five adults has mental illness. It does not discriminate by race, age, gender or profession. Yet, I felt completely alone almost my entire time in graduate school training to be a psychologist. I’ve experienced depression and anxiety for years. I’m one of the “lucky” high-functioning cases, which leads to the catch-22 of being able to conceal my symptoms well enough to survive school and work, while having to deal with an illness that is invisible to those around me.
Graduate school taught me about advocating for others and working towards dismantling the stigma of mental illness. But behind closed doors, there seemed to be an understanding: it was okay for our clients to be depressed. It was not okay for us.
I found out later that several others in my graduate program experienced similar struggles with mental health. In all our cases, no one reached out or said a word about our noticeable symptoms until it began to affect our work. At that point, dishearteningly, several of us (myself included) were coldly told to “deal with it.” As we cried in our professors’ offices, we were handed a tissue box and expected to continue working without missing a beat.
I’ve been to therapy before. I found out recently that a lot of my friends in grad school attended therapy while we were in school as well. In a way, it’s a good thing — you don’t want a therapist who hasn’t been on the other side of the couch. It gives you a level of empathy and understanding you can only get from having a therapeutic experience yourself. On the other hand, it makes you question how much our higher education system is breaking us down before they build us back up.
I wish my clients could know how meaningful my work is, and how much I relate to them. I am living as both a mental health professional and as a person with mental illness. I may be in a better place now, but I will never forget what it feels like to be exhausted no matter how much you sleep; to have a panic attack in the middle of the night; to be crushed by the weight of your own and others’ expectations. To deal all day with the thoughts of hating yourself.
I pride myself on working hard at my job, even on the days when it consumes all the energy I have. But it’s been a slow process of learning to have confidence in what I do even when my brain screams that I shouldn’t. I fight endlessly to correct misconceptions about mental health; to help dissipate the stifling stigma.
I fight the good fight in public, then come home and battle my own internalized shame. I advocate for my clients who can’t do so for themselves because I know what it’s like to be in a severe depressive episode or to be paralyzed by anxiety. Maybe I fight so hard for every client because this fight is so personal to me. Maybe I still hold the belief that I can change the world. And maybe even if I can’t, I can change the world for just one person.
Emily Burch is completing her doctorate in clinical psychology whilst working as a clinician in a large mental health facility. She has always found writing to be her escape from her struggles. She thanks her significant other for his support, and says hello to her cats, Poptart and Mr. Noodles.