Below are the pros and cons of being a graduate student in mental health, as seen through the lens of a social work graduate student. Although this is one perspective, I believe that many of the opinions I express here also resonate with many other professionals in the mental health field.
When I told my case manager about dark thoughts impeding my enjoyment of simple things like watching movies or reading a book, she reminded me that those thoughts could be generated by my disorder. Not meaning to be dismissive, but to simplify things. It made sense to me.
People need to feel safe opening up about these weird thoughts that don’t quite fit into a “normal” checklist of casual mental illness. There are those out there who just need someone to reassure them. There are also many who truly need this space so they don’t harm themselves.
On Christmas Day, a dear friend whom I’d made in the psych ward two years before, dropped by and cooked me a lovely Christmas dinner, rightly assuming that I hadn’t had time to go shopping. The cupboards were bare. She cooked a lovely meal. I talked about my various stays and she reminded me that she’d been to visit me at one of the hospitals.
As much as I liked all of the gifts Jackie gave me, they became so much more meaningful when she was states away, serving seven years in the California state penitentiary system, where she moved back and forth between prison and a mental health facility for treatment of schizophrenia.
It’s as if I’m stuck in a dream, watching a movie about my life, but I don’t know the plot, the characters are completely foreign, and I’m the only person in the theater. I’m both involved and detached simultaneously, unable to make connections with others or the outside world.
Living with bipolar disorder I have a lot of experience in accepting things as they are. I also have a lot of experience in knowing that the more I focus on the things I can change, and accept that I am powerless over other people, places and things, the more good I do for myself.
Having a panic attack onstage in front of everyone changed my life forever because it taught me that fear doesn’t kill you. But it altered me in another way too. I’d been hiding behind a persona for so long, I’d resigned myself to keeping my panic attacks a lifelong secret, but being exposed in that way broke a pattern, and it set me free. The exposure of my fears brought people closer to me, it didn’t keep them away, that’s what a persona does.
When you have mental illness, you can’t just pick up and keep moving. Sometimes you are sidelined. And when you are, it can be devastating to feel like a failure on top of the actual symptoms you are experiencing. There is a line we have to walk in this space.