I think this is an important thing for everyone to recognise, especially writers, bloggers and professionals.
I have mental health problems. I do not necessarily know how someone else feels. Number one, there are many different types of mental health problems just like there are thousands of different physical health problems. Someone with a broken foot doesn’t necessarily know what it’s like to have diabetes.
Number two, no two people experience one thing the same. Two people may have diabetes but their physical symptoms and their emotions surrounding it may be entirely different (and even a tiny difference can make an experience totally different).
That being said, I have mental health problems and I can be understanding of, and empathetic, towards those that do. I don’t know what they are exactly feeling, but I have an idea and some of the things I feel may be the same or very similar. I also do know what it is like to have an illness that at times feels stigmatised and shameful, hard to talk about and lonely. I also know some strategies to help.
Sharing my experiences may help. Some of the stuff I say may not, and I will never assume I know how someone else feels just because I have a mental health problem too. I won’t even assume I know because we have the same mental health problem. What leads us to where we are is never going to be the same, and our experiences are never going to be neither. And I think this is important to realise.
I think it is all too easy to assume certain things, and over identify with people, which is harmful in more ways that I can explain but can also lead to you not understanding why if something worked for them, it doesn’t work for you. Or it can make you compare yourself in other ways, like with eating disorders. “I’m not scared to eat that, does that mean they are worse than me and I don’t really have a problem and I don’t deserve help?”.
I reiterate that there are a million ways it is harmful, and I cannot begin to cover them all. One I will highlight, for any professionals or carers in particular is what I experienced today.
I’m going to keep the details vague. Somebody told me that they know how I feel because someone close to them in their life has self-harmed in the past. At first I felt relieved to hear it because I thought “this person is going to understand, and isn’t going to treat me like I am wasting their time” but I soon changed my mind, hence this post.
The person assumed too much. They assumed they knew why I self-harm by using the reasons their relative self-harmed. They stole me of my own words and built my story up using their story when my reasons for self-harming were nothing like their relatives and therefore what she was describing and advising was totally irrelevant to me.
Now, this person meant well. They were lovely, and I was not at all angry. But it does worry me that this happens a lot. Professionals need to remember, regardless of their experiences personally, that the person sat in front of them has a different story of their own, and I often think this is one of the problems that can occur especially when people enter the mental health field (this person was not in the mental health field) because of a personal experience of mental health.
I think personal experiences can be valuable, priceless. They can also give people tunnel vision if you like. They can’t see outside of their experience and sometimes they say too much about their experience and it’s important to remember your job role is for the patient, not yourself, as harsh as that may sound.
It’s not necessarily a criticism, but I think it’s an important thing to be aware of.
One reason I am glad I left mental health nursing is because I know I over-identified with patients and was too emotionally invested.