The therapy couch is the great equalizer. It does not discriminate. There are people from all walks of life, all reasons for coming, all feeling human pain. The human experience is unique, beautiful, raw. It is also common and you are not alone. If you are considering seeking psychotherapy for any reason at all, you are not alone. There is a stigma pervasive in our society that teaches us that we are weak, weird or abnormal if we “need to get therapy.” This is particularly rampant in certain professions like the military, law enforcement, firefighting, emergency personnel and crisis responders. These populations often see people on the worst days of their lives and encounter traumatic situations on the job on a regular basis. These include risk to personal safety, as well as repeated exposure to the secondary trauma of witnessing significant loss, fear, death, or harm to fellow human beings. Furthermore, there are structural aspects to the job which present their own challenges. These include scheduling, rotating shifts, sleep deprivation and shift work disorder, prolonged time away from spouses, children, significant others and friends, especially on holidays, and general lack of understanding from people unfamiliar with the job. Support systems become limited and opportunity for isolation increases. And then, perhaps most relevant to the purpose of this article, there is the built-in shame and stigma about admitting, and *gasp* seeking help for, mental health struggles. As if people in these professions are immune to being human. As if they are somehow less allowed to feel pain, less deserving of compassion. As if they are somehow more able to handle trauma and stress, more equipped to override normal human responses. As a result, people in these professions struggle with higher rates of depression, anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), problems with anger management and aggression, and relationship issues that lead to higher rates of divorce and suicide. According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness, more police die by suicide than in the line of duty. Of course people drawn to such professions possess unique qualities that allow them to excel in their work. However, this does not exclude them from risk factors and vulnerability to the effects of mental illness, problems in coping, and overall human suffering. This is not a drill – it is high time we admit this reality, accept it, and address it head on. The cost of ignoring it is not free. The price is paid by the person suffering, by their loved ones, by the diminished quality of their work, and by the overall communities they serve. Healthcare includes mental health care, and while most of these professions provide access to quality medical care, too many of the professionals forego seeking treatment and support for mental health issues. There is an unspoken belief that this makes them weak, incapable, or defective. Nothing could be further from the truth. Seeking help requires courage, fortitude, commitment, and a willingness to improve oneself. You cannot pour from an empty cup and self-care cannot be optional. It is mandatory – like sleep, like food, like water.
I think I may be struggling – now what?
Remember this article the next time you go on a call and are overwhelmed on the job by something you see, the next time you are haunted by an encounter you had. Pay attention if you are having trouble connecting with your spouse or children, if you feel numb or preoccupied. Be aware of feeling anxious about going to work, or doubting your abilities about things you previously were confident about. Notice when you feel hopeless about your day to day contributions at work or feeling like what you do does not matter. If you feel you are not doing well, you’re probably right. You know yourself better than anyone else knows you. Trust your instinct, it is there to protect you. Make a phone call to a mental health professional. Talk to a trusted colleague. Reach out to human resources for referral options. Look online for providers in your insurance network. Take a risk and be vulnerable, if only a little bit, by asking others at work if they have struggled and gotten help. Chances are, the answer will be an affirmative. Listen to their stories of getting well, of gaining support, of increasing insight and gaining mastery over their pain. Then make the determination that you deserve and can achieve the same. Do not wait. It is unlikely to just vanish. Mental health issues are highly treatable, but only if you seek the treatment. It’s like a pill – it only works if you swallow it. Please consider the following: Is your pride bigger than your pain? Are the opinions of others (coworkers, colleagues, supervisors, bosses, spouses, etc.) more important than your wellness? Psychotherapy is inherently confidential and a unique environment to admit and address your struggles in a proactive and supportive manner. Research professor Dr. Brené Brown said “If we can share our story with someone who responds with empathy and understanding, shame can’t survive.” Erasing stigma starts by seeking help and encouraging others to do the same. Please do it.