Statistics say that one in four adults suffers from a mental illness. Depression impacts all of us. It does not discriminate by race, age, gender, or profession. Yet, almost my entire time in graduate school training to be a psychologist, I felt completely alone. I’ve experienced serious 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 the disease well enough to survive school and work, whilst having to deal with an illness that seems and feels invisible.
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 of our cases, no one reached out or said a word about our noticeable symptoms until it began to affect our work. At that point, results varied—but, dishearteningly, several of us (myself included) were coldly told to “go to therapy and 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. Those of us who didn’t come into the program with a diagnosis often ended up with one by year two or three.
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 themselves. 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. We were degraded. Shamed for asking questions. Scoffed at and expected to know better.
I wish my clients could know how meaningful my work is, and how much I relate to them. 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, quite bluntly, hate yourself.
I pride myself on doing a damn good job, even on the days when it consumes all the energy that 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 depression or paralyzed by anxiety. Maybe I fight so hard for every client because this fight is so personal to me. Maybe I still have a little belief that I can change the world. And maybe even if I can’t, I can change the world for just one person.