Q. Some Questions Regarding Clin. Psych. Careers and Prior Mental Illness. I know that on the surface this looks somewhat like a question that has already been asked by someone, but I really do have some new questions on the subject, so I would appreciate it if you’d be willing to answer!
I am currently considering a career change. Since I have an interest in clinical psychology and I like talking to people and helping them find solutions to their problems, I was wondering if I should go for a PhD in this subject. My main issue is this: I am currently being treated for ADHD, anxiety, and intermittent bouts of depression. In addition, I have had a couple of depressive episodes in the past. I hope, however, that I will be able to conquer these issues (at least for the most part) in significantly less time than the 7-8 years between now and when I would be able finish a PhD program.
Do you think that it would be unwise to pursue that course of action (i.e. perhaps start preparing to apply for PhD programs next year) when I don’t yet have my life completely under control? I am still trying to get on top of a lot of issues related to the ADHD and to some extent the anxiety. On the other hand, I do hope to make improvements in these areas and if I don’t at least make enough preparations so that I could apply for grad schools by next year, I feel like after that point I won’t be at a time in my life where I can reasonably spend 6 more years as a student. (I didn’t do any undergrad work in psychology, so before applying to grad schools I would need about 18 hours of undergraduate work and probably some experience working in a lab. This means I do have to plan pretty far in advance if I want to attempt the PhD.)
Also, another question I have is this: Do you think, as someone with a history of depression, I would be able to be a therapist and listen to other people talking about their depression, suicidal ideation, etc., without those feelings being “contagious” even if I were not currently depressed?
I am currently in a training program for a crisis hotline, and I am hoping that this volunteer experience might be able to help me gauge the answer to that question a bit, but I would still really appreciate it if you could give me your perspective on the issue. Thanks for taking the time to read all this, and thanks for any advice and input you can give!
A. Your questions share the basic premise of whether someone with a history of mental health issues should or could become a counselor to others with similar issues. The answer is it depends.
Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) follows the model of having former addicts counsel individuals currently struggling with addiction. It’s an effective method partly because theoretically former addicts understand addiction; they have experienced it and have battled it. They can empathize with the struggles of addiction, perhaps in ways that a person who has never experienced addiction can.
The same may be true regarding depression and other related disorders but not if the depression is severe and incapacitating. Generally speaking, if an individual is experiencing depression and is not able to self-stabilize, he or she is not in some form of treatment and has no intention of seeking treatment, then I may advise them against pursuing a career in counseling until their depression is under control. The main reason would be because it is extremely important that the therapist be as psychologically healthy as he or she can be. The advice that a therapist gives their clients has to be as accurate as possible. Giving erroneous advice can actually do harm to clients.
People who have had depression and may experience it mildly or intermittently may be able to pursue a career in counseling and be very successful. Having had depression, similar to how former addicts advise current addicts, may give you insight into the illness that others who have not experienced depression would not have. In this way, having had depression may help you in your counseling career.
Having had depression has the potential to make you a better therapist but it would be inaccurate to say that just because you had depression you’d make a better therapist than some who has not.
Having had depression should not bar you from pursuing a career in counseling. In fact, many who enter the field of counseling are individuals who were helped by therapy. They’re motivated by the help they received and often express a desire to “give back” and help others as they have been helped.
I want to also mention that the fact that you are taking a job as a crisis worker is a very smart idea. That job will give you a chance to see what it is like to give advice to individuals who are depressed. The job of a crisis hotline worker can be intense and extremely challenging. It might be a good way to gauge how you feel about a career in counseling.
Lastly, try not to put timelines and arbitrary pressure on yourself to get into a PhD program. You’ll know when and if you are ready, even if it takes a few years to know for sure.
I hope this answers your questions. Thanks for writing.
Last reviewed: By John M. Grohol, Psy.D. on 20 Oct 2008
Randle, K. (2008). Can a Person with a History of Depression Have a Career in Psychology?. Psych Central. Retrieved on March 9, 2014, from http://psychcentral.com/ask-the-therapist/2008/10/20/can-a-person-with-a-history-of-depression-have-a-career-in-psychology/