It's no secret that mental illness still has a huge stigma. I always thought I was above those stigmas - that I didn't have a bias against mental illness. But the first time I pulled into the parking lot of a psychiatric hospital for an evaluation for one of their outpatient programs, I called my husband to let him know where I was just in case they deemed that I was a crazy person and wouldn't let me leave. So there's my bias. I finally found where I drew the line where I'm okay with or not okay with mental illness. And that line was a psychiatric hospital.
The reality was that they had me go in and answer a few questions about my current state so they could make sure that I wasn't at risk for harming myself or others. They also gave me my first ever breathalyzer! It seemed so strange. But as they took me back for my formal evaluation, I realized that a lot of their questions are applicable to MOST people, whether or not they have a mental illness. The patients in the inpatient psych area of that building are not all that different from me, from my friends and family, from my coworkers. They just have a lot going on and need some help to figure it out.
When I was ready to return to work after having some time off to do this outpatient program, I was absolutely terrified of what people would think of me, what they would say about me. I actually used a DBT skill called "coping ahead" where I sat down, closed my eyes, and visualized myself walking back into the office. I imagined every possible scenario I could think of. The looks I might get, the whispers that might happen behind my back, the questions people would ask me about what I was doing while I was off work. I had kept my mental illness a secret from all but a couple people in the office.
As I walked into the office on my first day back at work, I was greeted with nothing but smiles and reassuring faces. No one asked prying questions - they just wanted to know that I was okay and tell me they were glad I was back. Of all the situations I'd conjured up using my "cope ahead" skill, this one never came to mind. Thanks, anxiety! (If you're one of my coworkers reading this - I genuinely thank you for how you handled that day because I wasn't sure how my return would be received.)
As I spent the next few weeks re-acclimating to my work environment, I decided that I wanted to be more open about my experience and my mental illness. I had learned that even though I was a mess prior to my time off, I probably appeared to be doing just fine to all of my coworkers who didn't see my panic attacks and overwhelming depression. So I wondered to myself, how many of my coworkers are struggling with similar things but appear to be doing just fine? Is there anyone that might be struggling with the same things I struggled with?
It was a bold decision on my part. I risked judgement from people who have their own biases about mental illness. I risked pushing people away that didn't care to hear all the details of the worst time in my life. But I think I gained something much greater. I opened up my door to allow anybody struggling to come and talk to me. I let them know that it's okay to not be okay. That our manager and supervisor were absolutely supportive of me taking the time to care for myself. And most importantly, that they were not alone.
I felt extremely alone during my time of struggle, feeling that everyone else was not affected by the terrible things we saw and experienced during the worst of the pandemic. Everyone else seemed to have just brushed it off and moved on. And I just couldn't. I didn't even know where to begin. So I spiraled to the point where I couldn't even function. After returning to work, I made the decision to make sure that no one felt that loneliness and isolation by letting my coworkers know that I felt the weight of the pandemic, I sought treatment for it, and I am actually doing well again.
My hope for defeating the isolation of mental illness does not stop at my own department. It extends to the nursing units where I interact with doctors, nurses, PCAs, social workers, environmental service, etc. I hope that if I open up to others, that they will in turn be able to open up more as well. I hope to create an environment that is supportive and understanding rather than an environment that makes people feel isolated and unsupported. I feel that the hospital has put in effort to make our employee assistance program more available, but sometimes talking to a counselor once a week just isn't enough when you come right back to an environment that doesn't feel supportive.
We all went through the pandemic together. Why shouldn't we try to heal from the pandemic together? I'm not sure exactly what that looks like because every individual has different needs. But I hope that by sharing my story and opening up a line of communication, we find a starting point that leads to bigger and better things.
How have you healed from the effects of the pandemic? Whether or not you work in a healthcare setting, it affected all of us in different ways. Have you found ways that you can provide support for others who are still struggling? I'd love to hear from you. Please message or comment below! As always, thanks for taking the time to read :)