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 Marja Bergen.
1) Tell us a bit about you and the mental health challenges you’ve faced.
I’m 74 years old and have lived with bipolar 1 disorder since 1966. Throughout 2015 I was emotionally abused by a leader I had admired – a mentor and confidant. I ended up with PTSD, something I’m now starting to recover from.
2) What does the helping work that you do look like? What are some of the common challenges faced by the people you work with, and do you find there’s a lot of overlap with your own experience?
I was a pioneer in raising mental health awareness in the church, starting in the year 2000. In 2006 I founded a peer support group called Living Room. Several other groups started as a result. As well as leading the group, I supported individuals one on one. I also published three full-length books and four illustrated gift books. Weekly I send out encouraging writings, via my blog and via Mailchimp.
The people I write for have a variety of mental health challenges. My readership also includes individuals who don’t have such problems, but still get a lot out of it.
3) What drew you to the helping work that you do? How did your own illness or mental health challenges influence the direction that took?
I felt bad that people with mental illness were made to feel shame for something they could not help. Beginning with my first book, Riding the Roller Coaster (1999), I tried to promote the idea that having a mental illness is not the end of the world. You still have a life to live, and it can be meaningful if you keep a positive outlook
4) Of course having lived experience is part of peer work, but do you think that, in general, you’re a more effective helper because of your own mental health challenges? How so?
A lot of my work is teaching and encouraging. I’ve learned what has helped me and passed it along in whatever ways I can. For example, “other centeredness” has been important in keeping me going, throughout my many trials. What that means is, when I’m struggling with depression or other problems, I consciously turn my attention to the needs of others. What helps is that I do get a lot out of helping others. Other centeredness has seen me through nine years of leading a big support group, as well as five years dealing with post-traumatic stress.
One more thing: because of my own experiences, I’ve become a patient listener and have empathy
5) To what extent have you shared your own mental health challenges with the people that you help to support? What influenced that choice?
When I started building awareness and battling stigma, I decided the only way to do so was to be open about my own illness. I felt that if I was going to hide what I deal with, it would be giving the message that I felt ashamed. At my support groups we started meetings with everyone around the table sharing what their personal struggle was. (Like in AA)
6) Has the peer support work that you’ve done changed how you approach your own illness or mental health challenges?
I try to practice what I preach. Especially, I’ve been trying to instill confidence in the people I work with and the people I write for. I currently have a series on my blog which tries to encourage confidence in the reader. A Voice of One Calling is still being added to.
7) What advice would you give to someone who has faced mental illness or other mental health challenges and is thinking about doing some form of peer support work?
Doing peer support is fulfilling. It helps you realize you’re not the only one who struggles. A great way to pass along the things you’ve learned while dealing with your own challenges.
Thanks so much Marja for sharing with us!