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.
This article has been updated from the original version, which was originally published here on October 20, 2008.