I’m seeing a rather worrying trend right now of assuming that people with a mental illness (MI) are automatically better equipped to help others because they know what it feels like, or to look at it the other way, unless you have that illness you can’t truly help. To make matters worse, I know of at least two people who have changed their direction of trying to support people with one certain disorder, which is obviously not a good thing.
First, to set a foundation, I am 100% fully supportive and behind anyone who has the courage to speak out about their mental health experiences and struggles. I know of many people who travel to give talks, write books, articles, blogs etc. and are being amazing advocates for people with MI. These people are the inspiration for this article,and I want to encourage more people to speak up, and to discourage behaviours that may prevent others from helping.
However, it is also true that not everyone with a MI is in a position to help others. This does not mean that people with a mental illness cannot help others and be amazing psychologists, therapists, counselors, mentors etc. I believe that those who have experienced MI and speak out are doing amazing things advocating for people with MI. I am simply saying that it isn’t necessarily true that someone with a mental illness is automatically better able to help others based only on a shared experience, and the discrimination against people who don’t have MI is not helpful to the cause.
While there is likely a higher empathy of what the person is feeling (unless the disorder we are talking about is narcissism), it isn’t an automatic qualification to know how to help. The experience of one person with depression may be a different experience than someone else has. There are of course similar symptoms, the diagnosis of a disorder requires certain symptoms to be experienced, but people experience things differently and just because person ‘a’ experiences an illness one way, it doesn’t mean their experience speaks for all with that illness. Person ‘b’ may experience the same illness very differently. Person ‘a’ may not be able to relate to the way person ‘b’ experiences the same disorder at all.
Finally, there is still a lot of stigma surrounding mental illness and not everyone who has an illness wants to talk about it, especially professionals who may feel their position threatened by being open about it. Telling someone “You can’t help me unless you have experienced this” and judging a professional will not help them feel good about sharing or opening up. The other side of this equation is that not everyone with a mental illness will want to be helped by someone with the same illness, and may be looking for some outside perspective.
Here are the three takeaways for today:
1 – Having a mental illness doesn’t mean someone is better qualified to help others.
2 – Not having a mental illness (or having a different mental illness) does not disqualify someone from being able to help others.
3 – Not everyone with a mental illness feels comfortable talking about it. If you have MI, you know the stigma, don’t put that same stigma on someone else.
We don’t need to be a meteorologist to see the effects of the wind and what I am asking is for everyone to please play nice and stay open to learning and supporting each other for the good of all. Ultimately whether someone has an MI or not we are all trying to work to the same ends aren’t we?