Mental Illness

Being Mentally Ill in the Mental Health Field: Experiences of a Graduate Student

I have always been honest about my mental illness. Since being diagnosed nearly six years ago, when I was sixteen, I have made a good faith effort to be forthcoming with anyone who asked. Though I never have publicized my condition unless it was relevant, I have never hidden it. That is, until now. And even now, I’m not hiding it as much as I could be–after all, I’m writing this blog, and the Internet is not known for its anonymity. What changed? Well, I’m pursuing a graduate degree in what is technically a mental health field. One wouldn’t expect such a place to be so judgmental, but expectations are often wrong.

I walked into the orientation for my program thrilled at the prospect of finally stepping onto the Path of Academia. I walked out terrified. Not because of the daunting workload or the intimidating professors, but because of the Fitness to Practice speech given rather threateningly by the director of the program. Fitness to Practice typically refers to the ability of the person practicing in their field, in this case psychology, to be professional, competent, do well academically, adhere to ethical standards, and be emotionally and mentally fit. He made it quite clear that we will be tossed out on our backsides if they find out we aren’t “emotionally well” and they decide we can’t handle it. Of course, it’s up to them who can handle it and who can’t, and I imagine it would be heavily subjective. I imagine those who would be safe would only be those who had the “good excuse” of having a family member pass away or a tragic event occur. Obviously, those are completely valid. They shouldn’t, however, be the only reasons that are valid. From what was said during the speech, even those with conditions that are often thought of as being the “good” sorts of mental illnesses, such as depression or anxiety, would have to fear the Fitness to Practice hammer. Those condtions are agonizing for many, and they are struggles, but we think of them in our society as the more benign of the mental illnesses, the ones that aren’t threatening. While they are still very heavily stigmatized, they don’t typically carry the violent and aggressive stereotypes that other conditions do.

To be entirely forthcoming, I will disclose that I have Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder, Generalized Anxiety Disorder, Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, Bipolar I Disorder, and Borderline Personality Disorder. I’m a bag of mixed nuts! I’ve got bats in my belfry! I hit two out of the three in the big trifecta of Scary Crazy People. The other one, for the record, is schizophrenia, which I do not have as of yet. Two of my diagnoses, Bipolar I and Borderline Personality Disroder, are extremely stigmatized. They’re the “scary” illnesses. I’m completely fine with my diagnoses, and I am very high-functioning. While I do not work, I go to school full time and I am involved in numerous volunteer activities. My illnesses help to make me who I am, and while they can be horrible to deal with, I would not trade them. Sure, I’d like to get rid of a few (I’m looking at you, PTSD!), but they are a part of me I have grown quite used to. Over the years I have learned to cope with my illnesses. I know what works for me, I have strategies and techniques taught to me by various therapists, and I have a strong and wonderful support system. But I’m still scared, because I know that university administrators and many advisors/professors, no matter what their discipline, see me and think “AHHHH! Liability! Get it away!”

And yet I have been working and volunteering in the mental health field for years now, and it has never been a problem for me. I know when to back up when things get too heavy, and I know when to call it quits if that’s what’s in my best interest. When I was in the throes of a vicious eating disorder, something I have written a little bit about before, I knew that it was in my best interest to take a semester off of school, even if it meant that I would not graduate as early as I would have liked. Now I’m scared I wouldn’t be able to safely do something like that without getting kicked out of my program, because even in a field where the stigma against mental illness should be understood, it is not. I have professors who refuse to use person-first language, where we say things like “a woman with schizophrenia” rather than “a schizophrenic” in order to preserve dignity and ensure that it is known we are talking about a human being with a condtion. It is so important never to define someone by their illness. And yet, I have professors who talk about “those Borderlines” and I know people who have professors who talk about “the crazies.” Sitting in class and feeling like you are being personally villified is an indescribable feeling. I’m angry, I’m sad, I’m scared all at once. It has always been in my nature to speak out against injustices. I routinely call out classmates and professors on misogyny, racism, classism, you name it. But I can’t do it here. I have to stay silent. I know they can’t look at me and see the loose screws in my brain, but I feel like if I speak up, I’m going to be found out.

So, have any of you had a similar experience? I’d love to hear in the comments about whether anybody else has experienced this sort of stigma. What happened? What did you do? The more we speak out, whether it is anonymous or not, the better the message is heard.

By Elfity

Elfity, so named for her tendency to be a bit uppity and her elf-like appearance, is a graduate student and professional Scary Feminist of Rage. She has a propensity for social justice, cheese, and Doctor Who. Favorite activities include making strange noises, napping with puppies and/or kitties, and engaging in political and philosophical debates.

21 replies on “Being Mentally Ill in the Mental Health Field: Experiences of a Graduate Student”

I too am mentally ill and am in the mental health field (MSW to be exact). My diagnoses are the less “scary” ones- OCD, formerly with PTSD and anorexia nervosa- but I feel the stigma too. I am particularly sensitive to talk like “Oh that woman is so borderline.” or “Someone’s got a little axis II going on!” because it is dehumanizing and ultimately very unprofessional.

Thanks for this post.

It really is. Talk about using person first language and being respectful should be part of every ethics course, but sadly it isn’t.

Even when I only talk about my own anorexia, which I have mostly recovered from, I get the stigma. It seems it knows no bounds!

I am currently in a graduate program in psychology, and I’ve found that my program is not a very open or welcoming environment for those sorts of disclosures. There’s a stigma and taboo even in talking about family members’ mental health issues, but definitely even moreso about one’s own. I have gotten double takes even for mentioning my depression, which I would think a room full of current and future psychologists would take as a given. My experiences thus far have taught me to be less open and more guarded about those types of things. In my program, there are subtle and indirect consequences for sharing vulnerable information that can really impact your experience and professors’ perceptions.

The fact that there are professors, who should know better than anyone,  so disrespectful and dehumanizing to their patients is appalling.However, I can’t really say I’m surprised.

I really admire your open stance, and wish I had the guts to emulate it. I’m still dealing wit the intense shame I feel about my own mental kinks. You’re so brave!


That has got to be terrifying. Grad school puts enough self-doubt and anxiety on a person (especially women it seems) that adding on the extra level of Fitness to Practice is just a kick to the proverbial groin. I’m in grad school for environmental sciences, but I cross over into conservation psychology quite a bit and am good friends with people in the psych department. I have to agree with @Susan that a lot of people in MH have issues themselves; frankly I don’t know of many people who don’t have something going on upstairs (eesh- double negative). But I also think that being open about it is a huge first step: it takes people like you to take away the mystery and stigma that others’ associate with it. Not that you need to walk around carrying a banner or anything, but challenging someone else’s assumptions about a disease or disorder or anything can really go a long way- whether it’s a student or a professor. And really, challenging the assumptions of your professors can be supremely scary, but some of them also could use a take down on treating people like people, regardless of their situation. That’s just human decency.

Either way, good luck with academia.

I think it’s definitely true that many people in MH have some issues, and I think that’s a good thing. It puts things into perspective, and I think it makes you a little more compassionate.

After writing this and getting some feedback, I feel like I may have the courage to speak up next time something profoundly ableist is said.

Thanks for the luck wishes!

To be honest, I think that the majority of people in the mental health field are drawn to it because of their own experiences.  I would guess that they give that speech at the beginning precisely to keep you in line – to make sure that you don’t stop taking your meds, to make sure you don’t relax your coping mechanisms, etc.

In other words, I bet they get a *lot* of students that are mentally ill, and a lot of them do not cope well, or have not figured out what they need to do to cope well.

You HAVE figured out what you need to do.  You DO cope well.  You have nothing to worry about.

(Not that it makes it okay for them to disparage being emotionally unfit – but I think (I hope) what they are saying is that grad school is tough, and you have to be prepared to handle it with every mechanism you have).

I can see where that would have been motivation, and I think if the tone and the message had been more supportive (letting us know about university couseling, stress management, etc.), it would have come off much better. I understand why we have the Fitness standards, but I think there’s a good way to talk about them and a bad way to talk about them. In our field, this was the wrong way.

I imagine they see students like that, though I haven’t known any personally. Grad school can break even the most stable people! They still aren’t creating the most supportive or understanding environment, though, which is very unfortunate. They could take some lessons from my undergrad professors, who were always really good about letting us know about stress workshops and such.

Wow that is just terrible. I am really sorry that you’ve had to experience that and it’s shame that this is from supposed medical and metal health professionals… Though, I must admit I am not very surprised that it’s this way. I’m sure most of those farts are just happy to continue the hysterical woman trope.

Also: thank you for sharing. I’ve experienced similar stuff. Even though I’ve probably had OCD and a few other mental illnesses since childhood / early adolescence I’ve never had them diagnosed officially for two reasons: my mom is one of those people who thinks psychiatric/psychological care is really, really taboo and because (and this is one thing my mom and I agree on): since I’ve had OCD for as long as I can remember, I don’t think medication is the proper treatment. It’s part of who I am, it’s a part of my personality. Unless they could prove that I have a chemical imbalance, why would I treat my personality with chemicals. IDK maybe this is just me over here being a the child of a pseudo-hippie.

A month or so ago my mom asked me if I heard voices / was schizophrenic and when I told her, “No, but I probably have bipolar disorder.” She said, “Yeah me too.” Conversation over… Did that really help anything? Was that supposed to make me feel better? I don’t know, but it just made me angrier.

I’ve also had two boyfriends who’ve abused me and thrown the whole “mad woman” status on me once they found out about my depression/anxiety/OCD. They would ask me why I was acting so “crazy.” Gee, IDK maybe because boyfriend #1 cheated on me, and boyfriend #2 lied to me routinely. So while I continue to be open about my mental illness, I am very weary of what people will do with that information.

Oh, I know some of them love that whole “hysterical ladiez” thing. Even, sadly, some of the female professors.

Thanks for sharing your experiences! I personally take comfort in having a diagnosis, and you can always see a psychologist or counselor rather than a psychiatrist if you feel like you want to but you don’t want medication. I don’t care for medication myself, because I also view my disorders as a part of me that I’m just used to. I have found that counselors and such can give you great coping techniques and thinking strategies that you can use to self-regulate, so I tend to lean towards them and away from the medical side.

And I totally feel you about the boyfriend thing! My ex was abusive and after our breakup, he went around telling everyone how “crazy” I am and how I was making things up to assuage the guilt I had for leaving him for another, awesome guy. No guilt here! Just the same, because I have been open about my disorders, I have a feeling people probably believed him.

I got to a counselor through my school (she is training for her licence) and she’s like the 4th counselor I’ve had and the best. She gets me to talk about all those things I try to repress and never think/talk about. It’s helped a lot. She’s very thoughtful about all the different techniques she can incorporate to help me manage my conditions.

That being said, I would like a legitimate diagnosis. Just for the purpose of knowing all that I’m dealing with. I’ve got this notion that I have a learning difficulty that contributes significantly to my OCD and anxiety. I also notice some bipolar/hypo-manic patterns in my life. So yes, I need a diagnosis to really know all that I’m dealing with… and to, errr, justify all of the stuff with my mom, the ultimate derailer.

Oh Elfity! *hugs* It sucks, doesn’t it?

I’ve been doing policy work since I was a kid on MH systems, and one of the biggest barriers has been the fact that so many people have had professors like this, so people aren’t taught in the beginning to see their patients as humans deserving of all the rights everyone else has. it’s horrible.

I hate the fitness to practice standards as they stand, as they are so subjective.

Right now, our state’s consumer advisory (PA) for MH has a clause about how you should be “stablized- which to me means that those who are actually dealing with the hardest parts of the system on an ongoing basis aren’t being heard from. I’ve been hesitant to disclose that I’m homeless, and I’ve been doing MH work with them since I was a kid and my MOTHER was on the advisory (as a family member, though she’s also a consumer)! Homelessness is like this huge red flag for some people when it comes to “stability” and “fitness to serve” standards.

For me though the hardest part of being open about my multiple Dx’s has been my bio dad, who thinks my being open about it is some HORRIBLE thing. He’s one of those “everyone else is out for all they can get, so you should hide how you aren’t normal and get what you can- but don’t use the system to do it” people. I can’t wrap my mind around that perspective, even using all the tools I’ve been taught. Let’s just say that even when I’m relatively stable, going to visit him isn’t something I come back from intact.

Yay, hugs!

It really is horrible how subjective these standards can be. What seems “stable” to some might not be to others, and you never know who really gets to make the call. As for homelessness, that should absolutely not fall under any fitness or stability standard, as far as I’m concerned. But then, I consider myself to be a reasonable person!

I absolutely hatehatehate when people act like being out about my illnesses is the worst thing in the world. What, do they want me to apologize for making them uncomfortable? That’s really awful about your bio dad- I’m sorry you have to deal with that. Stay strong!

The homelessness thing is seen as “evidence” that someone isn’t “stable”- because of course stable people aren’t poor, you see. Gotta love classism with your daily helping of ableism!

I had my lawyer tell me it was a bad thing that I’m not ashamed of my disabilities as far as SSI goes. All the techniques and re-thinking I’ve had to do to have a healthy relationship with the concept of me as a PwD? are the opposite of how they handle things. It’s horribly dehumanizing and depressing as hell.

My bio dad. . . he’s a huge Glenn Beck fan. ‘nough said.

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