During your initial visits with your therapist you discuss your background, your social history, and the current mental health issues you are encountering. You may even be developing a treatment plan that will guide you through the first phase of your recovery. After a few sessions of focusing on you, your therapist decides to self-disclose that he or she has a mental health disorder too.
Wait? What? “Can you repeat that?” you ask.
And they do repeat it and yes, you heard it right. Your therapist has a mental health disorder. The thoughts are racing through your head. You don’t want a quack to try and help you. If they can’t fix themselves, how are they going to fix you? Should you switch therapists?
You are trying your best to unhear the statement your therapist made, that they have a mental illness. Dare you ask which type? Yes, of course you want to know. Be careful, though, and remember, you weren’t judged when you expressed your issues so don’t judge them. That’s hard to do because you have put your therapist on a pedestal, they are the experts who have helped many people overcome disorders. Maybe, just maybe, having a mental health disorder is the exact reason they can help so many people. AHA moment!
Types of Illnesses Among Providers
Mental health providers are just like you, they are human. They may not have had the perfect childhood either. They may have been abused and suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder. They may have overcome substance abuse. Some therapists may have even experienced depression, anxiety or bipolar disorders.
Some providers may be currently dealing with their own mental health problems. Not all of them have overcome their disorders and they can still be good therapists and doctors when they are working on their own positive mental health. Some therapists may go home each night to an abusive spouse. Others may be an abuser. It has been known that some mental health providers suffer from attention deficit disorders as well as eating disorders.
The point is, no one person is excluded from having a mental illness. You, along with everyone on this planet, is susceptible to getting a mental health disorder. In many cases, such as providing therapy for drug and alcohol abuse, clients prefer to work with a therapist in recovery. It makes it much easier to confide in someone who has been exactly where you have been.
The Stigma of Mental Health Disorders
Many mental health professionals suffer with mental health disorders. They may not tell you they have a mental illness, however. They fear you will want a new therapist. They fear you will spread the word to the community and they fear they won’t be able to work as a therapist any longer because of what people will think and how they will be judged.
In a study involving psychiatrists who have mental illness, less than half of them reported they would disclose their mental illness to the public. Even in research among doctoral students in the field of psychology who reported having mental health issues, only a few wanted to report their issues to anyone in their academic programs for fear of being treated unfairly.
There are many great reasons why people choose to become mental health providers. Sometimes the reason to become therapists or psychiatrists in the first place is to figure out their own problems. Professionals in the mental health field use their own mental illness as their area of specialty. Once they overcome their own mental illness, they can truly show others how to do the same. They can become great role models with inspiring stories of overcoming mental health problems.
One role model overcame schizophrenia and went on to become a psychologist. His name is Frederick Frese and he is a great example of why mental health professionals should reveal their struggles and how they succeeded despite the obstacles they encountered.
Alcoholics Anonymous is an example of how those in recovery can make good leaders in the field of mental health and substance abuse. Millions of people attend Alcoholics Anonymous because the leaders have been alcoholics and are in recovery. It gives them someone tangible to look up to and guide them to recovery.
Too Much Self-Disclosure
Having your therapist self-disclose that they too suffer from mental illness can be a great thing. It can help the two of you relate on a new therapeutic level. Beware, though, of the therapist or Psychiatrist who reveals too much about themselves.
It violates all sorts of boundaries when your mental health provider starts turning your therapy sessions into their therapy sessions. It is not appropriate for you to know more about your therapist than they know about you. When a therapist reveals too much information about themselves, this can do more damage to your mental health.
Therapists can self-disclose information about themselves only when they see it can further the treatment goals and help you relate more effectively. If your therapist is telling you all about their home life, their sex life, or what they like and hate about their work life, then you need a new therapist. Your boundaries have not only been crossed, they have been violated.
The focus should be on you, not them.
How to Move Forward
Once your mental health provider reveals that he or she has a mental illness, you can still move forward in your therapy with great success. You have a mental health disorder and you can be successful in your career also. There is no difference between you, except maybe your choice of career. Mental illness is not limiting to anyone who is receiving treatment.
Moving forward also means you need to be on the lookout for any potential barriers created by the therapist. If your therapist discloses too much, if your therapist allows their mental health disorder to interfere with your sessions (they call their therapist in the middle of your session, have a panic attack in the middle of your session, etc.), or if your therapist treats you and your illness with disrespect, then you need to move on and forward with a new therapist. Otherwise, you should be able to maintain a great working relationship with your mental health provider. Allow them to help you by offering the knowledge they have gained through education and experience, even if the experience is personal to them.