Mental health workers struggle with stigma about their own issues

Cuts and stretched services are affecting the mental health of carers in the sector, with many too ashamed to seek help.

The Guardian– March 22, 2017

by Emily Reynolds

Understanding around mental health is improving: campaigns such as Time To Change have drawn public awareness to the issue and employers are realizing the affects of dedicated well being support to staff – which have led to a 30% reduction in mental health-related absences. But surprisingly, stigma still exists for those working in mental healthcare themselves.

Many people working in the sector are reluctant to talk about their own experiences, says Elizabeth Cotton, an academic at Middlesex University researching the topic. She was one of them. “I walked a thin line between being a competent professional and feeling like a fraud at managing my own mental health at work.”

This experience also rings true for Sarah Jones*, a peer support manager for a mental health charity. In previous jobs she was forced to actively hide her mental health problems.

“I have friends who work within the sector who have very little support at work, and have told me they just wouldn’t disclose their mental health issues to colleagues or managers due to fear of judgment or discrimination,” she says.

Mental health workers are often expected to be “self-reliant [and] cope in the face of traumatic and emotionally challenging work,” says Ruth Allen, chief executive of the British Association of Social Workers.

There is expectation that because these care workers are supporting mentally ill people, their own mental health must be under control. This can put immense pressure on them.

“Even when I was working in a psychiatric hospital and suffering from mental health issues, I didn’t feel I could trust my supervisor to get beyond the notion that I was just being ‘a bit anxious’,” says Laura Sharp*, a social worker who works in adult and child care. “I was working with suicidal people all day every day, but I was told to be less emotive.”

Sharp says this experience made her work – which often involved restraining suicidal patients from self harm or cleaning up blood – traumatizing. “I felt neither contained nor safe, physically, emotionally or professionally.”

It is widely assumed that workers in the sector will be less susceptible to trauma and are somehow desensitized to the emotionally difficult work they carry out, says Allen. These unrealistic exceptions can often be “a dangerous contributor to less compassionate and engaged care and support,” she warns.

Allen also says that people working in the mental health sector often find that the job does not meet their expectations. “They often are in a different culture, working with a financial regime that is at odds with their personal commitment,” she says. This creates a stressful situation: “staff either bend themselves out of shape, become exhausted trying to make the system work, or simply leave,” she says.

Other elements of the job can exacerbate or catalyze this distress. Cuts to funding and stretched services, particularly in the NHS, can cause internal support infrastructure to crumble, meaning workers needing help can also fall through the cracks. A survey (pdf) from the British Psychoanalytic Council and UK Council for Psychotherapy found that therapists felt burnt out and distressed because of their work, while not receiving adequate supervision to help deal with these issues.

Mental health workers, who often work punishingly long hours to begin with, are working additional hours to compensate for lack of staffing and rising demand, says Allen. “Staff are left feeling like they have no time to adapt to changes and perform at their best.”

Sharp, who has since got a new job, thinks the sector needs a further push in looking after employees’ mental health, which will ultimately benefit service users. “I still think every day about the patients I worked with and how the system is failing them,” she says. “I’m a social worker and I still love my job. But I only managed to get this love back by leaving a job I had initially felt passionate about. That’s not right.”

The sector needs to do more to support mental health issues in staff. Since changing jobs, Jones has also found an employer that views her own experiences of mental health as an asset. She says the support at her current work has helped her to thrive and eradicated her feelings of shame around mental illness.


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