Q. I have struggled with depression and anxiety for much of my life. When I was four, my mother entered me into therapy and I was later diagnosed with dsythymia and generalized anxiety disorder. I stopped therapy at the age of 14, and later attended family sessions to benefit my younger sister (focused on her). At age 19 I began having inexplicable panic attacks whenever I tried to attend my college courses and had to withdraw. I entered counseling briefly and the therapist declared me healthy and ended our sessions. By age 23, I had been struggling with severe highs and lows coupled with intense anxiety and the insomnia that had been with me from my youngest days (I said I was unable to sleep as young as 2 years old!) Recently, after I reluctantly agreed to try medication for my depression, I was given a tentative diagnosis of bipolar disorder (ultra-radian cycling) by my primary care physician (not a psychiatrist.) I am currently being treated with a low dose of sertraline and feel pretty steady the majority of the time. I have not received counseling since the bit when I was 19.
My question, after all this lead-up, is this: I am interested in art therapy as a career. Will having this history or being on medication prevent me from working as a counselor? Should I strive to be off medication? Are employers or certification boards permitted legally to ask me about my mental health history? I have often helped others with emotional or relationship issues, and I feel I could really make a positive impact. I hope I can pursue this career path. Thank you.
A. You have asked some very good questions. It is not uncommon for individuals with past or current mental health problems to be attracted to a career in psychology. While this is not uncommon, it is important that if you are going to enter this field that you do the work (in therapy if needed) to correct, or at least become aware of, to the best of your ability, your psychological or emotional issues before you seriously consider helping others. You do not have to be “perfect” to enter the field of psychotherapy, none of us are but you do have an ethical and moral obligation to be as psychologically healthy as you can be. In addition, if you are suffering with major psychological issues, it will be extremely difficult to help others and to give good advice. Giving bad advice could certainly harm a client and cause further emotional distress or trauma.
Regarding your own mental health, your personal experience with mental health issues and your experience taking different medications can provide you with unique insights that can assist you in helping clients. Having these experiences can better help you empathize with others with similar issues. As a therapist, the ability to empathize, or to put yourself in someone else’s shoes is an invaluable and necessary skill. Also, in your journey through your own mental health issues, you probably learned skills or specific techniques about how to deal with certain issues. You could pass these learned skills onto your clients.
To answer your specific questions, to the best of my knowledge, there is no law that prevents individuals who have had therapy from being able to obtain a degree or license to help others. If you committed a felony, in most states, you may be barred from helping certain groups of people (children, etc.) but having therapy will not bar you from pursuing a career art therapy.
With regard to medications, whether or not to stay on medications is a personal decision. Again, to the best of my knowledge, taking medications as a therapist is not against the law in any state. As far as future employers, it would be against the law for them to obtain your personal mental health history without your signed consent.
If you feel that you can be helpful to others then your instincts are probably correct. Take care.
Last reviewed: By John M. Grohol, Psy.D. on 31 Dec 2007
Randle, K. (2007). Can Therapists Have Mental Health Issues?. Psych Central. Retrieved on January 29, 2015, from http://psychcentral.com/ask-the-therapist/2007/12/31/can-therapists-have-mental-health-issues/