My small Clinical Mental Health Counseling Practicum class gets out twelve minutes early. I strain to catch the eye of my classmate and friend on the other side of the room, a tall Indian woman with her hair in a sagging bob and sympathetic eyes locked on another classmate. I turn impatiently towards our classmate, who favors red lipstick and dramatic retellings of her life events.
Sighing, I give up and turn around, shifting my backpack’s weight on my back and folding a paper plate in my hands, evidence of enjoying a slice of the twelve pizzas someone had dumped in our counseling center that afternoon. I step into the narrow hallway and run into two classmates grabbing pizza. I spin around, looking for a trash can. People keep brushing against me. I keep stepping nervously, refolding the plate in my hands. The room begins to spin.
As the walls buckle, my chest constricts and I struggle to breathe. A classmate next to me says, “There’s a trash can behind the microwave.” She gestures. I lurch over to the microwave. Conversations and shadows echo around me. I become light-headed as everything begins to fade to black. Just before I faint, I rush out of the center and into the main hallway, gasping for air. Speed walking past my professors’ offices, I collapse on a table around the corner. I sit there, stunned. I just had a panic attack while at the counseling center, where I am currently learning how to become a counselor. I just came dangerously close to people finding out that this future counselor struggles with mental illness herself.
There is still a strong stigma against counselors with mental illness, though many counselors may have them. People are generally drawn to work in the mental health field due to life experience. I have met counselors who have shared that they have had mental illness or they have colleagues with mental illness. These professionals tell me that their struggle with mental illness helps them relate to clients, and their recovery process has uniquely equipped them to be more effective counselors. Still, few counselors come out publicly as having mental illness. The stigma against counselors with mental illness seems to hold people back.
Mental health professionals know the potential for recovery from mental illness, but also the potential risk. If you look at my medical chart, you see risk written over it in red script. There are my four hospitalizations, though they were fourteen years ago. There is my decade-long struggle with self-harm, although I have stopped. Most importantly, there are my diagnoses: Bipolar Disorder, Generalized Anxiety Disorder, and Dissociative Identity Disorder.
I was in another Clinical Mental Health Counseling program six years ago. I was working nights and going to school full time during the day. My psychiatrist warned me that working nights is not good for people with bipolar disorder; it can throw off our cycles. I thought I was handling everything well, but looking back now I see that I was rapid-cycling and lacked the self-awareness to realize when I was drifting towards mania. I took a year off to get a better job and living situation. When I reapplied, my application was rejected. I felt blindsided. Essentially, I was informed that due to my history of mental illness I was considered a liability who would over-identify with clients. My lack of self-awareness was cited as proof of my instability. I’m still not sure if it was discrimination or an accurate assessment.
Whatever the case, I manage my illnesses much better now. Working at the counseling center feels natural to me, perhaps because I have been in personal counseling for ten years, so I know how it goes. I am a creative person and use poetry and music in my sessions with clients. I have been careful not to reveal my mental illnesses around professors, until this semester when I confided in my instructor and supervisor for practicum. A petite doctoral student with a level intensity honed from years of working in a crisis center, she is a firm believer in my counseling ability but has warned me to be careful telling other professors or supervisors, since they may not be as understanding. She asserts that my self-awareness and ability to consistently perform well as a counselor and a student, despite my changing mental states, make me an asset rather than a liability.
Fifteen years ago, I was told that due to a mental breakdown I would never be well enough to go back to school or work. I returned to college and graduated summa cum laude. I have been working since then and am now excelling in a graduate program. It has taken me ten years of therapy and fifteen total years of recovery for me to get to the point where I am healthy enough to counsel others. Now I have an arsenal of coping skills, a deep self-awareness, and a steely determination that continually pushes me through obstacles. My mental illnesses do make me vulnerable at times. More importantly, the knowledge and skills I have acquired over years of coping with chronic mental illness will make me a valuable counselor.