May is Mental Health Awareness month. A perfect time to ponder and think about our journey – personally and professionally – towards mental health. Sally wrote a lovely piece with a great introduction that I will not try to duplicate here – but I encourage you to check it out here.
Why did I choose this path?
As a psychologist, clients have often asked me about my choice to work in the field of mental health. I’d love to say the answer to that question is easy, simple. But rarely is the truth about these things either easy or simple.
Without getting into too much detail here (I save that for my own therapist or supervisor!), my curiosity about relationships and communication started very young. As a young child I suffered from very low self-esteem and if I am to be honest I believe I spent a great deal of my childhood feeling depressed. I was always a deep thinker, and as a child would love to watch and listen as adults talked. I clearly remember overhearing a comment about me: “She’s wise beyond her years.” Even though I didn’t understand what that meant at the time, I took it as a great compliment. I still do.
I knew early on that there were things about our family and home life that didn’t feel right, or indeed felt really wrong. My parents separated officially when I was about 13 years old. It was a decision that I now realize brought my parents shame (we lived in a small town in the very Catholic West of Ireland, where, at the time, separation and divorce was uncommon and frowned upon).
To me though, it felt like a relief.
Fast forward several years and I had to choose something to study at university. I was lost. I knew I loved to learn but the only thing I could think of was wanting to help families communicate better. Little did I know at that time that a classic reason for people to get into the field of psychology is to heal themselves or someone close to them (also, apparently not a good reason!). I did a little research (no computers and Internet back then) and found out that psychology was the field I needed to pursue.
It took many years of study (seven years and three higher education degrees) – and healing – for me to come to a place where I realized I not only could ‘do this’ but loved it too. When I understood how I could merge my years of study and my own struggles with dysfunctional family dynamics, depression and anxiety to be helpful for others, I knew I had finally come to the place that felt right. No longer a square peg in a round hole.
This line of work is certainly not always easy. But it is always worth it.
I worked with adults, families and children as a psychologist for over fifteen years prior to moving to the United States. Many clients suggested that listening to their ‘problems’ would be a burden. Some jokingly suggested that I must get irritated or cranky listening to them “whine about their problems” all day.
It was most certainly never irritating or a burden. Instead, it was a privilege. Knowing that they trusted me with feelings and thoughts that sometimes they did not trust with anybody else (sometimes even themselves) is a special honor.
Is the job tiring?
Absolutely. Being emotionally fully ‘present’ with clients can be exhausting. But only if you do not practice self-care. As therapists we try to practice what we preach as it were: I would schedule no more than 4-5 clients a day, and work four days a week. That worked for me, my famiIy, and my mental health.
Is it depressing
…to work with clients that are suffering, depressed, and/or in emotional pain?
It was never depressing. Seeing others in pain is difficult but inspiring at the same time. I am always amazed at the strength of the human spirit. To be even a small part of helping a person heal, to walk even a short distance of someone’s journey with them – is inspiring and up-lifting. It is the opposite of depressing.
Is it lonely?
Working as a psychologist can be ‘lonely’ in the sense that you work alone. However, you have colleagues, peers and supervisors that you consult with. Sometimes you work with them in the same location, sometimes you meet or consult outside of the space where you work. And because you get to work directly with people , it is very hard to feel lonely at work!
Making time for family and friends, socializing and keeping balance outside of work keeps all the parts moving as they should. While we cannot talk about work with our friends the same as other people, that can sometimes be a blessing: we get to talk about all of the other stuff that makes life interesting.
Would you choose a different career if you could?
I don’t believe I would ever choose to do something that doesn’t involve advocating for and supporting mental health. In a conversation about careers with a friend just after moving to Texas, she innocently asked what I would do since “[I’m] not a psychologist anymore”. It was at that moment that it became profoundly clear: My identity is tied to helping others on a much deeper level than a job title. Call it what you will: psychologist, life coach, mental health advocate, counsellor, friend – using my knowledge and experience in the field of psychology is not just what I do, it is who I am. And that is why I chose to co-author this blog! It allows me to pursue my passion until such time as I choose to move back into private practice.
Thanks for reading!