Reflections on stigma and self-disclosure by a clinical psychologist with bipolar disorder

As a clinical psychologist with bipolar disorder, I have been following with interest the ongoing discussions in The Psychologist regarding psychologists’ disclosure of their own mental health problems. These recent discussions began in the October 2016 issue, where an anonymous reader questioned whether, as a person with a long history of depression, it would be appropriate to for them to pursue a career in clinical psychology. The fact that such questions even need to be asked is a reflection of the prevailing and dominant narrative that as practitioners we should somehow be immune to mental health problems.

I wholeheartedly agree that if some psychologists feel comfortable enough to “come out” about their own experiences of mental illness, this would help to combat stigma within the profession. In fact, several years ago, I tried to do just this when I began blogging (albeit anonymously) about my personal experiences of having bipolar disorder as a trainee clinical psychologist. I confess that while part of my motivation was to combat stigma, I was also seeking the encouragement that I needed in order to continue along this career path. I felt ashamed and unable to speak openly about my experiences and insecurities offline.

The support that I received online propelled me to continue with my clinical psychology training. I decided to be open about my experiences of bipolar disorder with my tutors. One of my tutors was amazingly supportive and told me that she believed that my own struggles with bipolar would make me a better psychologist and that having walked the “service user” path through secondary care mental health services would deepen my understanding and empathy for clients who may have had similar experiences.

Unfortunately, not all of my experiences were so positive. After separate appointments with occupational health and a university mental health advisor (during a prolonged period of sickness absence due to bipolar) I found out that I would qualify as disabled under the Equality Act because of my condition. This in turn meant that placement supervisors and academic staff at the university should consider implementing “reasonable adjustments” to help place me on equal footing with my non-disabled peers (e.g., flexible hours on placement due to side effects of my medication, time off for appointments and some adjustments concerning academic assessment). Both occupational health and the disability advisor at the university wrote to my tutors suggesting the above adjustments. Unfortunately, these were not received well. Initially I was informed by an academic staff member that such adjustments were appropriate for undergraduates, not postgraduate students like me who were participating in a “challenging academic programme”. Another tutor stressed to my new placement supervisor that they should not give me “special treatment”. I was left with confusion and feelings of shame around this…. Was I being weak and seeking special treatment? Were the academic staff members talking about me negatively behind closed doors?

Nonetheless, I continued to brazenly and naively attempt to fight stigma! I shared my blog with some of my fellow trainees. I wrote an essay on clinical psychologists’ reluctance to talk about their own mental health. When lecturers made the assumption that as trainees we had not experienced serious mental illness or taken psychiatric medication, I challenged their views. When other trainees expressed opinions that I felt were stigmatising I passionately voiced my disagreement. I challenged an experienced clinical psychologist who argued that one should have resolved their mental health problems and been stable for a number of years before embarking on clinical psychology training. Unsurprisingly, all of this made me rather unpopular.

Now that I am qualified I look back on my time as a trainee with a degree of sadness as I do not have the depth of friendship and connection with my peers that many of my cohort do. I am ashamed that I was probably viewed as “the difficult one”. Nonetheless, I made it through and my personal journey and experiences have made me the psychologist that I am proud to be today.

So now you know some of my story, perhaps you will understand why I sobbed with relief when I read Professor Jamie Hacker Hughes’ and Dr Thomas Richardson’s letters in The Psychologist. “There are successful clinical psychologists out there who admit to having bipolar!” I gasped. It was so validating for me to read their personal accounts and how they draw upon their personal experiences to the benefit of their clinical work. As a side note I was saddened to see other clinical psychologists immediately criticising Dr Richardson’s decision to accept his bipolar diagnosis, but that’s a separate issue that I don’t have the space to discuss here.

I want to end this post with a message to aspiring clinical psychologists who have experienced mental health problems: Please do not give up on this career path because of your experiences. It is a stigmatising myth that psychologists must be free of any symptoms of mental illness in order to work effectively. If this were the case then given the prevalence of mental health problems in society, there would be far fewer clinical psychologists and trainees than there are currently! Your experiences may provide you with a special kind of empathy and resilience. We need more people like you in our profession, not less.

References

Letter by Professor Jamie Hacker Hughes: https://thepsychologist.bps.org.uk/volume-29/november-2016/letters

Letter by Dr Thomas Richardson: https://thepsychologist.bps.org.uk/volume-29/december-2016/gaining-momentum-honesty

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