I see possibility in patients because I know personally that recovery is possible
Jenn is a child and adolescent psychiatrist who specializes in treating eating disorders. A lot of people don’t know that Jenn has experienced significant mental health issues of her own.
When Jenn was a teen, she was hospitalized for anorexia. The support of her family, and a team of psychiatrists, therapists, and nutritionists helped her heal.
I think part of the difficulty with anorexia is that there’s not always a sense of how ill one actually is. Oftentimes, the patient is in severe denial about their illness, despite a lot of evidence to the contrary. What helped me most in that recovery journey was people not giving up on me.
Fifteen years later, when Jenn was at the end of her residency training, she experienced severe depression. The condition was so depleting it took hours for her to walk a block or write clinical notes. Despite knowing better, she resisted getting help.
I was having a hard time coming to grips with the fact that day in and day out, I was treating patients with severe depression and other mental health issues and I couldn’t help myself. I couldn’t take the step to see somebody because of how much shame I felt.
At work, Jenn would counsel children and their parents about how physical health is no different from mental health. She began to feel she was living a lie.
That went on for over a year, and I just kept expecting it to get better. Instead, it just got worse and worse. The disconnect between what I would say and truly believe and what I was not doing for myself was really hard. I’m a psychiatrist, and I felt stigma.
Jenn believes many people who enter the medical field struggle with depression and other mental illnesses.
We’re at risk and we don’t talk about it. We lose an estimated 300 to 400 physicians annually to suicide—the equivalent of an entire medical school.
The demanding role of a health care worker, stigma within the profession, and even potential repercussions around licensure in some states play a role in why physicians hesitate to ask for help when struggling with mental health conditions.
In Jenn’s case, she feared her colleagues would discover her mental health issues.
I couldn’t go anywhere, because I knew everybody.
Then, her “worst nightmare” came true.
She delayed getting treatment until she reached a crisis. She ended up receiving care in the same emergency department where she worked.
Everyone was very respectful and kind, but it was a horribly shameful experience. It turned out to be a blessing in disguise, though. I finally got in with a wonderful treatment team that I still work with today.
Jenn’s colleagues were incredibly supportive, and she embraced her treatment plan.
I take medication. I go to therapy. I think of these as things that have to be done, just like I take a shower every day. It’s part of my routine, and I’m less ashamed of it now. I’m grateful there are tools that keep me well enough to do what I love.
She believes many health care workers face similar challenges finding care and overcoming stigma.
Caring for our mental health shouldn’t be so hard. We all need to recognize that physicians aren’t superhuman—they require attention to mental and physical health, just like everybody else.
Jenn believes it is, in fact, physicians’ humanity that brings them to medicine.
A lot of people make jokes about people who go into psychiatry being screwed up themselves. That always hurts when I hear it. I think one of the things that draws many people to psychiatry is some connection to someone they know—themselves or others—with mental illness.
It’s not dissimilar for most fields of medicine, where some people study oncology because they’ve had somebody in their life who’s had cancer.
She fears that until medical professionals are able to talk openly about their mental health experiences and treatment, stigma will continue. Her message to peers:
Reach out or confide even if it’s just one person, and even if that one person needs to come to an appointment with you. That was the case for me. There are people out there who want to help, who won’t judge you, and who have been there.
Jenn knows her experiences with mental illness broadened her understanding of her patients’ struggles.
It doesn’t matter how deep in an illness somebody is. I hold out hope for patients because people held out hope for me. I see possibility in patients because I know personally that recovery is possible.