Tonight I’m going to respond to a question from the 30 Days of Mental Illness Awareness Challenge.
Did I ever experience stigma due to my mental illness? I live with depression, and I’m not ashamed of it. But I share the realities of it very carefully, because I have experienced a stigma from one of the most unexpected places–going to grad school to earn my Master of Social Work.
I had never really called myself depressed until I began taking medication for it. Once that happened, I learned to accept it and do my best to stay on my meds, even though at that time I had no health coverage and was working two or three jobs to try to cover learning expenses. I spent a lot of time with a friend who was living with similar difficulties, and we provided support for each other as much as we could. However, that didn’t keep me from being hospitalized for the first time in the summer of 1992.
When I got ready to start the fall semester, I found out that somehow the dean of the program had found out about the hospital stay. With all due respect to her, I will never forget the pain of being asked to meet with a professor that I didn’t even know weekly so that he could monitor how I was doing. I also had to limit myself to taking a part-time course load. I was told it was for my own good and protection, even though I was in therapy with someone off-campus.. I could have even lived with those restrictions if I hadn’t found out that other girls in the dorm had been asked to “keep an eye on me.” Finally I moved into a tiny on-campus apartment where I had privacy and took some time off from being a student and focus on getting better. When I was ready to go back, I interviewed for a practicum spot in the spring and had things all set for the fall.
Unfortunately, I had another hospitalization in the summer of 1993. When the dean found this out (I never figured out how confidential hospital stays were getting to her), I was forced to take yet more time off. Not only was the dean now worried about my ability to function with classes (which had never been in question), she told me that she was concerned about how my depression might affect clients. That was the complete opposite of what I needed to do at that time.
When I was in classes, I felt much better; and my depression wasn’t nearly as debilitating because I was focused on accomplishing my goals and doing well in my courses. That’s why the hospitalizations were always in the summer. The practicum would have had even more of a stabilizing effect. I would have been more focused on other people’s problems than my own, and it would have given me perspective.
I didn’t return to classes until the spring semester of 1995. I had just accepted a full-time position as a food stamp eligibility worker for the State of Kentucky, so I took the two night classes that were offered. I was functioning well and making excellent grades when the bottom dropped out with the conflict between the seminary administration and the social work program. After everything that had happened, I knew I would not get my degree from that program. I was supposed to graduate in the spring of 1995, but I will always believe that the stigma of my illness made people afraid to let me do what I believed I was called to do.
I transferred to the Master of Education program in Counseling Psychology at the University of Louisville. I had to start from scratch, as nothing I had done in seminary or the social work courses actually counted in the program. I never told anybody in the program that I lived with depression, and even though I believe that it would make me a better helping professional, I will never tell anyone I work for about it. I’ll never take the chance of being discriminated against, even with good intentions.
I would never put anyone I was serving through my work at risk, and oddly enough, a few years later, I worked at a shelter for homeless families managed by the person I had interviewed with and successfully gotten the practicum that I was not allowed to be part of. She didn’t remember me, and she still doesn’t remember that she had met me before I started working at the shelter. But I always felt a bit vindicated that we had an excellent working relationship, and neither she nor anyone else I worked with there had any concerns about my ability to function professionally.
I hope to find a way to fight stigma in the helping professions. Just because I live with depression does not mean I can’t help others with their issues. I know that I have more empathy and compassion than I did when I was younger, because I “get it” now. One day maybe I’ll get a chance to show it.