As society learns more about mental health, some professionals working in applied psychology are opening up about their own mental health challenges to erode stigma and provide better support for all.
The growing transparency is presented in two papers recently published in Perspectives on Psychological Science and co-authored by Dr. Stephen P. Lewis, a professor in the Department of Psychology in the College of Social and Applied Human Sciences at the University of Guelph.
Mental health difficulties among professionals equal to general population
The first paper is based on a survey of more than 2,000 applied psychology faculty and trainees (graduate students) in Canada and the U.S.
More than 80 per cent reported a lifelong history of mental health difficulties, and 48 per cent reported having been diagnosed with a mental disorder.
Those rates are equal to, or greater than, those of the general population.
Lewis said psychologists are not immune to these kinds of challenges.
“We can’t assume these difficulties don’t exist” among mental health professionals, he said. “Mental health difficulties are ubiquitous in society, we know that. The data is quite robust in that regard.”
In an accompanying commentary researchers advocate for increased awareness and actionable steps to improve support for all people living with mental health difficulties.
How common are mental health difficulties among psychologists?
The study is the largest and most comprehensive of its kind and draws on data from both mental health professionals and trainees.
“We might speculate that students experience mental health difficulties, but we really didn’t have insight into the potential extent of this until this paper,” Lewis said. Grad students reported mental health difficulties “proportionately more” than professionals, he added.
Respondents were asked to report whether they have ever experienced mental health difficulties or been diagnosed with a mental health condition. The results included professional diagnoses and self-identification based on personal experience.
The question – how common mental health difficulties are among applied psychologists – has been “neglected,” the study said, as a result of stigma and a lack of current data, among other reasons. “To enhance our field, we have to look inward,” said Lewis. “We’re a field that studies mental health difficulties yet, ironically, we haven’t talked much about it with regard to ourselves.”
Having the data would go a long way to breaking down these barriers, he added.
Bias inescapable, but life experience valuable, says U of G prof
Historically, much of academic psychology has excluded practitioners’ own experiences beyond their role as participants in research. This is problematic and discounts the value of these views, Lewis said.
In some cases, a clinician with personal experience with anxiety or depression might have unique insights about how to support clients with the same diagnosis, he explained. The same also holds true for researchers who study topics reflecting their own lived experience, he added.
“The notion that just because you have lived experience with a particular topic — in my case, self-injury, depression, and trauma — you can’t or shouldn’t do work in that area is preposterous,” Lewis said. “If anything, I would say that such experience can offer potentially unique insights.
“People who have ‘been there’ can offer rich perspectives that may otherwise go unaccounted for,” he said, adding that “efforts to explicitly involve lived experience voices works to ensure diversity of ideas and that our applied work is both inclusive and fair.”
Making space for lived experience improves mental health treatment for all
Lewis, who has spoken publicly about his own mental health difficulties, hopes this research will change how the field of psychology is perceived and practised. “For the longest time, coming out and talking about one’s mental health difficulties as a graduate student, as faculty, as a professional, could be seen as a kiss of death, and perhaps an indicator that you’re not fit to be doing the work you do,” Lewis said.
That view has bred pernicious, unhelpful, stigmatizing ideas about what having mental illness means about a person, he said. “We present data to the contrary. Only a small portion say it has caused problems in their work in terms of their capacity to do research, to engage in therapy with someone, to undergo training.”
Those findings contrast with a societal perception that people with mental illness, or mental health difficulties, are incapable or lack the strength or capacity to conduct their work, Lewis said.
The study also considers the way EDI (equity, diversity, inclusion) efforts are approached in psychology, highlighting how mental health is often missing from conversations about disabilities.
Dr. Stephen Lewis