There’s Only Us, Part 2
One of the people who helped me understand the reality of “there’s only us” was renowned psychotherapist Carl Rogers. His book On Becoming a Person (Rogers, 1961) had significantly influenced my philosophy of human nature when I was working on my master’s degree in counseling psychology in the late 1970’s. I was fortunate to hear him speak at the first “Evolution of Psychotherapy” conference in 1985 in Phoenix, Arizona. He was talking about his life as a researcher, teacher and therapist. He had shared several of the seminal experiences that shaped his work, many of which I was familiar with from his writings. He shared a recent experience, however, that became another “awakening” regarding the “us and them” dilemma. Not long before the conference, Dr. Roger’s wife had died. He talked about the enormous impact of the loss and the profound grief he experienced. He was still an active professional and continued to work following her death. Coping with his grief was sometimes difficult. What I was most struck by was his description of how isolated he felt. He was the teacher, master therapist and mentor; it would be inappropriate to bring his own experience to the forefront. He described that one day a student noticed his sadness and simply asked him “Are you OK?”. Dr. Rogers shared his deep gratitude that someone had been willing to ask him if he was doing alright and to offer him compassion and an invitation to talk about his sorrow.
I had often debated whether to share some of my experiences with depression and anxiety with my students and colleagues and had always chosen not to. I instead maintained the aura of “professionalism”. Dr. Rogers description of how isolating and difficult it was to contain his grief and the appreciation he had for the student who showed him compassion encouraged me to step out of the role of teacher and be a human being. Now, when I facilitate classes on “Abnormal Psychology” (one of my least favorite course titles) or “Issues in Mental Health”, I tell my students about my history of panic attacks and periods of depression. We talk about “us”. When I first experienced panic attacks, I was fortunate to find a wonderful therapist and to learn some skills that helped me cope more effectively and remain free of symptoms for the past thirty years. It was clear, however, that many students were currently experiencing the effects of anxiety, depression, and other mental health challenges. Having open, honest discussions were helpful, so several of my students and I formed a chapter of NAMI (National Alliance on Mental Illness) on Campus to make our small college a more welcoming and supportive environment for those of us who have experienced a psychological challenge. And who hasn’t been impacted by either their own or a loved one’s struggles with mental illness?
Stigma silences many of us. My concern was whether I could be considered an effective, competent mental health professional and teacher if I admitted that I had struggled with depression and anxiety. During classroom discussions, many students were courageous in sharing their challenges with addiction, mental illness or trauma and I was always grateful for their willingness to be open and to confront the stigma. When I first risked sharing some of my history with panic attacks and depression, I was grateful for the understanding and support that students and colleagues extended to me. It gave them a chance to ask questions and for us have a dialogue about mental illness on a more personal level. The silence was broken. Now, it isn’t “us” and “them”, there’s only us. I think our willingness as professionals in the field to share some of our personal experiences can help better shape our students and trainees. It certainly reminds us that we are a part of, not apart from, the human condition.