As I prepare for the spring semester, I am breathless with anticipation of the coming months. I am in my third year of a master’s program for clinical mental health counseling. Right now I am completing my practicum in our university counseling center, counseling college students.
I also have bipolar disorder, a dissociative disorder, panic disorder, and generalized anxiety disorder. My life is balancing my mental illnesses along with school and my part-time job.
As I reflect on the upcoming semester, I feel five pressures that affect my experience of graduate school. Most of my stress is about the need for me to hide my mental illness at school.
1. The pressure to pass as “normal.” My experience of mental illness colors so much of how I live life. But in order to do well in my counseling program I have to seem stable. We are warned that students who seem mentally unstable will be taken aside and possibly kicked out of the program.
I was in another graduate counseling program several years ago, took a year off, and then reapplied and had my application rejected. I had made the mistake of sharing about my mental illnesses with professors. My professors explained that I was a liability to the school due to my history of mental illness. There is a strong stigma for bipolar disorder and dissociative identity disorder. (I have DID or something similar).
These days, when I come to school while fighting mania or dissociation, I would love to be able to share about how I am. I don’t necessarily need support. I would just like to be real and stop needing to feign normalcy.
Unfortunately, in order to succeed in my program I have to pass as normal and mentally stable. On my bad days I struggle to hide my symptoms.
2. The pressure to perform. Like all grad students, I feel the pressure to perform. We need at least a B in each class to pass. It’s hard for me since my mental illnesses or psychiatric medication cause me to have difficulty focusing and remembering. That makes it difficult for me to read for class, study, and stay focused in class.
When I’m manic, depressed, having panic attacks, or dissociating it’s hard for me to complete my work. Still, no matter what is going on, I need to perform well.
3. The pressure to be authentic. As a mental health advocate I feel pressure to be open about my story. Other advocates keep telling me that I need to be brave and share my truth publicly. Since I have a unique platform as a future counselor with mental illnesses, people pressure me to raise awareness about mental illness within my counseling program.
In addiction, as future counselors we are encouraged to be authentic and vulnerable. When counseling we are encouraged to bring all of who we are to session. Behind the scenes, my classmates speak about everyday stresses as they strive to be real.
But I can’t risk the consequences of being too real. It is hard since I long to be more authentic.
4. The pressure to have appropriate boundaries. We often talk about boundaries in our counseling classes. I have always been careful with boundaries in the workplace. In our counseling program, it seems more complicated. My classmates have spoken openly in class about their anxiety, depression, and difficult life experiences.
But speaking about my experience of bipolar disorder, a dissociative disorder, or panic disorder seems to transcend a boundary. I have shared with a supervisor and a professor about my mental illnesses, and they have warned me not to tell anyone else.
5. The pressure to share my perspective. I feel like I have a unique perspective as a writer, poet, and artist. I always want to share my point of view. I have been studying poetry therapy and use poetry therapy with my clients. I love that I have been able to share my creativity, but sometimes I feel the pressure of always being the “innovator” who is working overtime to do things differently and have it accepted by others.
I also keep wanting to speak up about my life experiences in order to raise awareness about mental illness, break stereotypes, and fight stigma. There are many times I would like to raise my hand in class to share something enlightening from my experience of mental illness, but it’s not worth the risk. The pressure remains.
Although the new semester is bringing back these pressures, it is also bringing me back excitement and joy. I truly love what I am studying and have loved working in our campus counseling center. I wish I could be open at school about my experience of mental illness, but it’s too much of a risk for me right now.
Once I finish my program and become a licensed mental health counselor, then I will have a stronger voice and potential to enrich others’ lives through my work. Someday, once I’m established as a counselor, I plan to “come out” as having mental illness.