Academic journal article Social Alternatives

The Intolerable Taboo of Mental Illness

Academic journal article Social Alternatives

The Intolerable Taboo of Mental Illness

Article excerpt

The paper presents an account of a mental health clinician's mad journey in a mad place at a mad time. An intolerable taboo appears to be operating when mental health clinicians themselves become mentally ill, and this phenomenon is used to explore experiences of separation, lack of recognition and lack of support from other mental health colleagues in the workplace. There are two simultaneous needs of grappling with our own shadow and of addressing the overwhelming and insidious shadow of mental health systems to overcome the culture of silence around this issue. The hope that exists for the system and the individual within this system is in facing the truth of our own madness so we may be better placed to help our clients and our colleagues.

Introduction

Very little research has been undertaken into the experiences of mental health staff who themselves experience mental illness. Most constructions of professional workers, where there may be some impact of the work environment on their health, are couched in terms of vicarious trauma or burnout and about the ways in which therapists are affected by their clients (Rothschild 2006: xiii; Jacobowitz 2013: 788). Professionals are encouraged to receive supervision and to undertake self-care (Dawber 2013: 241), and sometimes there is cognisance given to the responsibility of managers to address workplace stress and traumacausing factors (Jacobowitz 2013: 787). There are, however, a small number of studies that refer to mental health issues for staff. One study found that exposure to clients' traumatic experiences did not directly affect vicarious trauma and workplace burnout of Australian mental health staff involved in clinical practice. Rather, it was found that work-related stressors best predicted therapist distress (Devilly et al. 2009: 373). Another study (Joyce 2009: 1) showed that where nurses had experienced mental illness and the attached stigma, there was significant prejudice when returning to work, especially from other medical professionals. Joyce (2009: 1) also highlights a noticeable lack of research in this area of concern.

This article presents an insider account of my experience of mental illness while working as a mental health professional in a mental health service some years ago. The account is telling for what is not conveyed or written. How do you put words to the unsayable and that which is not allowable in society? The account is also telling for the way it conveys, quite purposefully, an a-contextualised, isolated experience that could be about anyone anywhere. There is one contextual detail provided here, however, related to my being surrounded by talented and compassionate colleagues who are dedicated to their work with mental health consumers. This example of what could be described as an isolated and disconnected experience from the people around me could perhaps be due in part to my colleagues at the time having little understanding of the struggle and pain of living through deep depression. It is also perhaps about the intolerable taboo in our society of professional caregivers themselves being susceptible to mental illness. Taboo refers to behaviours that are 'proscribed by society as improper or unacceptable' ('Taboo' 2005: n.p.). In the area of mental health, it can cross-link with the recognised harm caused by stigma, including social stigma (Sayce, cited in Repper and Perkins 2009: 121), to create a double jeopardy.

At the very least in my experience the taboo has the effect of creating a culture of silence (Freire 1970: 12) around the nature and extent of this phenomenon. The main effect of taboo behaviours is social exclusion and for me this manifested as increasing difficulty in remaining in the workplace. Anti-oppressive writers describe social exclusion and the related experience of marginalisation as forms of oppression (Young 1990: 53). Anti-bullying research links such behaviours to 'mobbing' or 'scapegoating' (Mattiesen and Einarsen 2007: 735) where numbers of colleagues, for example, are involved in creating a charged environment around a person with a de-valued identity (Millen and Walker 2001: 89). …

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