A professor of mine once said to me, “It’s selfish working in the field of mental health.” Perhaps “selfish” isn’t the best word to describe the experience of being a mental health professional; but I think my professor was on to something. What my professor was describing was how powerful, moving and healing working with individuals with mental illness can truly be. The relationship between the clinician and client is not one sided; the client is able to help the clinician just as much as the clinician is able to help the client. How “selfish” it is to have the opportunity to listen to a person’s deepest fears and insecurities, and in turn learn about my own. How “selfish” it is for me to be granted the opportunities to gain a better sense of myself through watching others confront their challenges and limitations.
My desire to gain a deeper understanding of myself, and to analyze why we think, feel and act the way we do is what drove me into the field of mental health. In college I thrived off of reading studies about human behavior, and what factors shape who we become. This fascination in the strong interplay between the individual and the family, community, and culture is what led me to pursue a Master of Social Work (MSW) from the University of Pennsylvania. Not only did I want to help people manage and overcome their mental illness, but I also wanted to advocate for these individuals to increase resources available to them, and decrease the stigma they experience.
Working in the field of mental health has taught me a great deal about myself, which is ironic seeing as the purpose of the profession is to help others. But when you think about it, helping others has an incredibly powerful impact on the way we see and understand ourselves. The feeling of satisfaction and worth that I get from trying to help others through listening, empowering, and advocating for them heals something inside of me. This ability to find tranquility and peace through working with others is what I believe my professor meant when he referred to the “selfishness” of the mental health profession.
I have learned that in order to be successful as a professional in the mental health field, it is imperative to have a strong grasp of one’s own limitations, biases and insecurities. So much of myself goes into helping others, that I must be able to put the innate emotions and reactions I experience aside and instead provide the support and empathy that is needed. While it is impossible to suggest that therapists and other mental health professionals deny our emotions (after all, we are all only human!), it is important that we have the self-awareness of what these emotional reactions are. And I believe that through modeling to clients that we too have limitations, biases and flaws – and we too must learn to cope with them, the alliance between client and clinician becomes stronger. Besides, no matter what the differences are between clients and clinicians, we are all in the process of healing and learning together. And without the ability to join and form a strong relationship, the process of healing and growth is impossible.