Recently I was at an appointment when the receptionist noticed I was dressed far nicer than usual and inquired why. I proudly told her I was working full-time again, and when she asked what I was doing, my pride swelled even further as I announced I worked with people who were mentally ill. The frown on her face was instantaneous as she muttered her apologies. I knew that those with mental illnesses faced a horrible stigma, but I was unaware mental health professionals faced that stigma as well.
This is where I am at a complete loss, because I always thought working in the medical field was prestigious, as in “Your child is a doctor? You must be so proud!” Another thought I had was that those who make a career out of serving others was honorable, like those in the military, firefighters, etc. So why is it that I am constantly having to explain to others that my career choice wasn’t a last resort because I couldn’t find anything else or anything better? Why do others feel sorry for me?
Well before I ever dreamed of walking down this path, I had felt that mental health professionals were unsung heroes who were in the position on often pushing a boulder up a hill. Insurance companies treat mental health benefits separate from other medical benefits, even though mental illnesses are in fact medical conditions; there are often much lower provider reimbursements in comparison to other medical professionals, lots of red tape involving authorizations and unrealistic visit limitations that force many in the field to go private in order to make their career livable. The result is less providers accepting insurances and fewer cost efficient options for patients to receive the care they need. Being a mental health professional is by no means a flashy, high profile, or high paying career in most instances; in my personal experience, those who choose this path do so because of the genuine want to make a difference. Glamorous hardly, respectable highly so.
Mental health facilities are closing all over the country, services becoming greatly reduced, yet the population keeps growing. Currently one in five Americans will experience mental illness in their lifetime. Just as much as those with cancer, diabetes, or HIV, people with a mental illness need resources for survival that include professionals to help them manage their symptoms in hopes of having an opportunity at a more fulfilling life. Where will these one in five end up without the help they need? Most likely in jail, on the streets, or dead. That is what people should feel sorry about, not those working hard to prevent these horrible things from happening.
For most of my life, I have felt insecure in the professional world, often pushing through just to pay the bills. Working with people with mental illnesses is unlike anything I could have ever imagined for myself in the best possible way, because it is here I have the opportunity to take my firsthand knowledge to help my peers better navigate their own journeys, which will hopefully far less bumpy than mine was. In reality it is I who feels sorry for anyone too ignorant to understand the important work that is being done to help make the world at large a much better place. One in five means your neighbors, your coworkers, your family and your friends. Mental health matters affect everyone. This is for all the mental health professionals who have helped me in the last 30 years, because I would not have survived without you: thank you.