When I mentioned to a friend and fellow Doctorate in Clinical Psychology (DClinPsy) trainee that I’d been approached to write a blog for PsyPAG, he joked that I should write about being a “mental illness mascot”. It’s true, I think I was asked because of the fact I’m so open about my lived experience. But his comment got me thinking; I haven’t always been this open about my experiences, and I wanted to share a bit of my experiences of the process of feeling able to disclose.
When I applied for the clinical psychology doctorate course, I purposefully didn’t make any reference to my lived experience of mental ill health. I even ticked the “prefer not to disclose” when asked what type of disability I had. Just in case I was inadvertently “found out” and discriminated against. My feeling at that time was that I just wanted to get a place. I didn’t want to take the risk of disclosing. I so want to be able to tell you that I wouldn’t have wanted to go somewhere that discriminated against me for this reason. But, the truth was, I would have gone anywhere that took me. I got 4 interviews the year that I got a place, and I couldn’t help wondering if that would have been the case had I disclosed my history.
For most of first year of training I keep quiet about my own experiences in my cohort. I didn’t feel embarrassed or ashamed of them, I just didn’t feel comfortable enough to share. I needed to disclose my history to the course team and supervisors due to periods of illness. At first when I did it felt uncomfortable, like I was letting them in on a secret.
Fast forward to now, halfway through the course, and it feels like everything has changed. I’m open about my experiences to fellow trainees, colleagues and friends. I’ve shared publicly on Twitter about my mental health history. I set up a lived experience group for my DClinPsy cohort, and I’ve become braver at sharing aspects of my own story in the therapy room, only in times when I feel this is helpful to the service user in front of me. In short, while disclosing often feels anxiety provoking, for the most part I no longer feel afraid to share.
So what changed?
To be honest, I’m not sure of the catalyst for this. Perhaps it was that, the more I was forced to disclose to supervisors and course staff due to periods of illness, and the more they responded positively, the more confident I was about being open. Role models such as Natalie Kemp (@kempspace), Emma Nielsen (@EmmaLNielsen) and Steph Allan (@eolasinntinn) who were open about their experiences on Twitter certainly helped. I tested the water several times: vague references to colleagues, fleeting conversations with fellow trainees on nights out, an anonymous Twitter account. These brief disclosures were received well and gave me confidence. And when I finally did open up, in person and online, I received hugely positive reactions.
I finally took the plunge in March 2019 to open up about my experiences publicly on Twitter and reveal the fact that I was a former service user of Early Intervention in Psychosis services. I also shared that two anonymous pieces (a journal article in Schizophrenia Bulletin, and a book chapter co-authored with my former psychiatrist Rachel Upthegrove, published as SA), were written by me. The response blew me away. Friends, colleagues and strangers replied with incredibly supportive and validating messages. My anxiety about sharing eased, although it hasn’t disappeared. While I was – and remain – stunned by the response, my overwhelming emotion was, to my surprise, relief. I learnt that in sharing my vulnerability, I finally felt authentic.
I’m not trying to be rose tinted here. Discrimination undoubtedly exists and I’ve been lucky not to have experienced it, as far as I know. I’m sure it helps that I’m white, middle class, articulate and I am seen to have “recovered”. But I still have doubts sometimes about whether I’ve done the right thing. Particularly as anyone can now Google me and find out my history. But, for me, it was self-stigma that held me back; the worry that others would treat me differently, think less of me, make judgements about my history, or my motivation for pursuing clinical training. Now, I feel like I no longer needed to hide a vital part of myself: the part that makes me who I am and that fueled my desire to train as a Clinical Psychologist. My experience of clinical training is certainly richer for my decision.
I long for the day where there is no need for mascots, role models, or “inspirational” people who are open and honest about their own experiences of mental ill health. When opening up about our own histories doesn’t carry a sense of dread that we might be “found out”, judged or treated differently. If, and only if, it feels comfortable, let’s be brave and share our vulnerabilities – hell, we ask the participants and service users we work with to be vulnerable all the time and think nothing of it. Above all, let’s strive for greater authenticity. I’ve overwhelmingly found that it’s worth it.
Who’s with me?
Sophie Allan is a Trainee Clinical Psychologist at the University of East Anglia.