An op’ed posted in the Montreal Gazette by Melissa Pickles (what a wicked last name! I would love to see Dr. Pickles!) about how she remains silent about her experience with depression as a resident in psychiatry. She opens up her story about a doctor of oncology that she studied under who was a cancer survivor and everyone knew. Pickles writes,
“This had a powerful effect on his patient interactions: they clearly valued his disclosure. There was a sense that he was more trustworthy, more empathetic, more wise, for having undergone the same life-changing experience.”
Throughout my social work education and work I have seen the power and value of lived experience. Generally, certain services prefer and stress employing individuals with lived experience. Women’s shelters hire women, LGBT organizations hire LGBT individuals, HIV/AIDS groups hire individuals living with HIV/AIDS etc. But our mental health system seems to be the one place where having lived experience doesn’t work for you but against you. Yes, organizations hire individuals with lived experience for peer support and community engagement but what about for higher positions of authority such as social workers, nurses, psychiatrists or even upper management? I get the feeling that lived experience does not exist as much the higher up the chain of command you go (or at least lived experience that they’re willing to talk about).
The view of individuals living with mental health issues is not a good one. Not only is society taught to doubt us, we are taught to doubt ourselves. Our own symptoms are used against us and we are constantly discredited. I would argue that it is the only social sector that does not see lived experience as a valuable quality for a professional to have.
Pickles expresses it perfectly,
“In spite of the fact that I feel my history of mental illness has enriched my clinical abilities, I still worry that it will make others doubt my competence, or respect me less.”
This is not fair. It is unfortunate to think that there are many professionals out there (my friends/colleagues among them) who are discriminated against by their employers because they disclose lived experience. This becomes especially difficult when an individual with lived experience has a mental health record which employers can request access to during a vulnerable sector screening (this may be Canadian specific). While it is illegal to not hire or fire someone due to a mental health issue, employers are set up with a variety of excuses to do so because of the discrimination within our society. A personal crisis where the police were called in as a safe mode of transportation can suddenly turn into “You may hurt the children,” despite having no history of violence towards others and a wealth of history working successfully with children (it’s the police involvement that give someone the mental health record). Most often, individuals with lived experience chose to pursue a career in mental health because of their lived experience (I know I did). It’s disappointing that discrimination and not actual evidence of poor work ethic can be the cause of so many dashed dreams.
I’ll end with a final quote from Pickles that illustrates the downfall of psychiatry for not welcoming lived experience,
“I’ve often worried that my own silence has helped to reinforce certain assumptions about mental illness — that recovery is impossible, or that mental illness should be kept secret. I think of the oncologist, who was able to use his experience with cancer to enrich patient care, and I wonder why this shouldn’t be the same for mental illness.
Many psychiatric organizations are taking on the challenge of stigma. But I wonder if we really can stay in our respective closets while still advocating for a society that is more open about mental illness.”