Mental Health Professionals Face Their Own Stigmas

It took Dr. Bart Andrews 16 years to admit to himself and others that he was a suicide attempt survivor, according to a fascinating article in the Missourian.

Andrews had fought substance use for years and been treated for alcoholism as an undergraduate. Then he started drinking again in graduate school. It got to the point where every day he experienced severe withdrawal symptoms, so he checked himself into a hospital. He had to disclose his treatment to both his internship and graduate program.

“One of the things that became really clear is that it wasn’t OK for providers to be fighting substance abuse or mental health issues,” he said. “There’s a tremendous amount of prejudice and discrimination toward (professionals) fighting substance abuse and mental health.”

Andrews has been told he’s not employable. His struggle with depression and substance use has been compared to an ethical violation, such as sleeping with a patient. When he applied for his license, a form asked if he had a problem with mental health or substance use that impaired his ability to provide treatment. There was no similar question about physical health issues.

“This is the heart of discrimination,” he said. “Mental health professionals preach a need for parity between mental and physical health, but we treat them differently when the person fighting the illness is another professional.”

There’s very little research about the number of mental health professionals who have had mental health issues. And conversations about personal struggles with mental health and suicidal thoughts aren’t common between mental health professionals, Andrews said.

“We as a field, meaning mental health providers, don’t talk about our own experience with mental illness and or suicide,” said Ken Norton, executive director of New Hampshire’s chapter of the National Alliance on Mental Illness. “And until we do, that keeps the door closed for so many people because it becomes an us and them thing.”

Andrews stayed in his graduate program despite his supervisors believing he shouldn’t. He attended Alcoholics Anonymous meetings, but refused to get a sponsor — he didn’t think he was an alcoholic.

He kept relapsing. The third time, Andrews was arrested and attempted suicide in police custody. He was let go the next day.

“I walked out of there and told nobody about it,” he said.

He lived in absolute fear someone would find out and that he wouldn’t be allowed to be a psychologist.

Those fears are valid.

Norton said he was once called by a mental health professional who was fired because her employer found out that she had suffered trauma. “It wasn’t a performance issue. As soon as they heard she had (trauma), they let her go,” he said.

Andrews said this is because lived experiences with substances and mental health are often associated with incompetence.

“When someone gets cancer, or diabetes, no one says you can’t work at your job,” Andrews said. “With substance abuse and mental health you’re not allowed. That should be a doctor and treatment specialist decision. Not a workplace one.”

But in mental health professions, “you’re either a provider or a patient,” he said.

Until it’s talked about more among mental health professionals, Andrews said, discrimination will continue.

“The only way to remove that shame is to talk about it,” Andrews said. “You have to get it out. It’s the only way to be real and for the shame to be knocked off of it.”

Read the full article here.

Adam Wahlberg

Founder of Think Piece Publishing