The wounded healer interview series features people who’ve dealt with significant mental health challenges, and who also work in a helping role to support the mental health of others.
This interview is with Elena of In(ner) Concordia.
1) Tell us a bit about you, the helping field you’re in, and the mental health challenges you’ve faced.
My name is Elena and I’m a peer support worker. I also study psychology. Back at the start of 2018, I suffered from depression and have been on a whirlwind journey ever since. I’d be lying if I said there haven’t been countless highs and lows, but in general my life has improved. I feel that I’m living on my own terms, following my own path, and have a greater sense of self.
2) What made you decide to go into your helping field? Did your mental health challenges play a role?
I was extremely lucky to find a psychologist with whom I clicked with from the very first session. I’ve always felt so comfortable in her presence. She was (and continues to be) a great facilitator of personal change. Even though she says that I do most of the work (which is true), it would not be possible without her help. After the first couple of months when I managed to get myself out of a dark hole, I remember thinking “She’s changed my life.” From that moment on, I decided that I wanted to have the same impact on other people’s lives. That’s how I got the inspiration to start studying psychology.
My own mental health struggles have also certainly played a big role in my decision to enter the helping field. Simply knowing that I was able to turn my life around to become a more confident and independent person, gives me hope that others can too. If I’ve learnt anything in my journey, it’s that the human spirit is very resilient.
3) How have your own mental health challenges influenced the helping work you do?
I think the main ways that my journey has influenced me is that I have greater listening skills and empathy for others.
One of the most important things I experienced with my psychologist was being truly heard. The second most important was that she did not hold the key to my problems, she just helped me try to find the key. So, when people tell me their problems, I don’t profess to know the answers; instead I try to foster an atmosphere where we can find them out together.
I’ve always been very empathetic but given my own struggles, I think it helps me understand when people describe their issues to me. It’s not a question of “I can imagine what it’s like to be there” but more like “I’ve been there.” I feel others’ pain not only because I genuinely care (which I do, deeply), but also because I have lived the pain as well.
4) Do you think you’re a more effective helper because of your own mental health challenges? How so?
Absolutely. There is something to be said about the mutuality aspect of struggle. Knowing where I have been and that others have also been there is very powerful. It means that I can see the hope in others, even if they themselves cannot yet do so. One thing I’ll never forget is that even in my darkest of holes, there was always that glimmer of light. When others come to me, I can point them in the direction of that light; because God knows it’s not always easy to find it when you’re struggling in life.
5) Have you chosen to share your own mental health challenges with any of your patients/clients? What influenced that choice?
In my role as a peer worker, our position description specifically tells us that we are to use our lived experience of mental health struggles with the people we support. So I am constantly drawing upon my own experience. Of course, I don’t always use it, but when the time is right and I feel there is a lesson to be learnt, I won’t hesitate. In saying that, there are certain methods to ensure safe disclosure for both myself and the other person.
6) Has your training or experience in your helping field changed how you approach your own illness or mental health challenges?
Definitely. I am much more open to discussing my problems now, which in and of itself is therapeutic. Also, I firmly believe that there is no single approach to getting better. Good health (including mental health) is holistic and as a result, should be treated as such. The medical model is important (in particular for some conditions), but it is not a blanket solution for everyone. There are many other aspects that must be considered in order to effectively heal people.
7) What advice would you give to someone who has faced mental illness or other mental health challenges and is thinking about entering your helping field?
My biggest advice is: take care of yourself first. You cannot be in any state to help anyone if you yourself, are struggling. The second piece of advice is: do your own work internally. My psychologist recently told me of a quote by Carl Jung who said that you can only progress as far as your therapist has progressed in their own work. It is very true. If you are unable to sit with the feelings of others because they stir up something inside, then you won’t be an effective helper. In many ways, you may even act as a hindrance. And finally: be interested in others. Genuinely interested; not for the sake of fixing a problem, but because you truly want to know about them and what makes them tick.