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Sharing the 'unsharable': embracing our vulnerabilities as human beings

On Friday 20th September 2019 I attended a workshop organised by the BPS Division of Clinical Psychology South East Branch titled "Taking Responsibility for Valuing and Supporting Psychologists' Wellbeing and Lived Experience of Mental Health Difficulties", co-facilitated by Dr Amra Rao, Clinical Psychologist and Dr Natalie Kemp, Clinical Psychologist and founder of in2gr8mentalhealth.

The title immediately caught my attention when I saw this advertised on Twitter... I expected it to be an interesting event, as I had been following the work of Natalie and the in2gr8mentalhealth community on twitter and social media. However, I did not quite expect what happened in that room... I found myself surrounded by peers and colleagues who shared their experiences of human vulnerability as I shared mine, for the first time in a forum that didn't involve me thinking about what would happen next if I said x and y.

It is difficult to name what this experience has left me with. It was an incredibly powerful and emotional experience. There was sadness and shock that in 2019, as Clinical Psychologists (and other professionals in the 'mental health world'), we are still faced with incredible stigma when we share our lived experience of mental health and our vulnerabilities. It is saddening that we live in a world where for (too) many it feel unsafe to say "Hey, I am having a bad day today". It is sad that people who have been brave enough to share their vulnerabilities have had to go through incredible amounts of pain due to the stigma and the confusion that still surrounds lived experience of mental health in professionals working in mental health services.

It is sad that many of 'us' felt isolated throughout (and still do) and seen as 'less capable' to make decisions about what should happen next. Lack of choice was a big theme on Friday, as we reflected on how there is often no choice over processes that seem to take their own course, as we are left to not only navigate our own distress but also the additional distress these processes can generate. I can't emphasise enough how this is REALLY NOT OK.

It is not ok that we live in a world where we can't be 'human'. It is not ok that, as clinicians, it is sometimes even less possible to be 'humans' in our work environments. But what is really not ok for me is the organisational denial, persecution and lack of awareness / compassion for people who have used their whole strength to find the courage to get into a room with a manager, a supervisor, a friend, a colleague and share their story. It is not ok that organisations are basically reacting in ways that are traumatising people and leading to more distress.

We all had different stories on Friday, but there were a lot of similarities. One of the things that resonated with me is how much someone's experience of sharing their distress can be dictated by the attitudes and reactions of individual managers, supervisors and colleagues. Some of us were fortunate to have supportive managers / supervisors. Others have had awful experiences. Some... a bit of both. This should not be the case. Organisations, especially mental health trusts, should be 'emotionally competent' enough to enable employees to embrace our vulnerability and humanness, because our awareness and experiences of vulnerability can be what makes us better clinicians.

The sadness, shock and anger that mental health trusts are still confused about what to do with human distress was undoubtedly a big theme... but there was so much more than that. There was also connection, care, compassion... and there was hope. So I guess to summarise my (still confused) reflections... IT IS NOT ALL BAD.

The main thing I have taken away from sharing experiences with colleagues is that it may feel awful, scary and hopeless at different points for everyone... but we are not alone and together we can find a way to create a positive shift towards more compassionate organisations where it is not just ok, but common practice for psychologists, nurses, occupational therapists and all the other wonderful clinicians that dedicate their lives to understand and support human distress, to walk into the office and openly share that they are having a bad day and may need a bit of time, or that they are going to therapy later that day or that "hey... this client's story is a little triggering, can we try to understand why and how I can use that to foster compassion".

I feel incredibly grateful for having been part of really important discussions on Friday and I feel thankful for having had the privilege of sharing my experience and listening to my peers share theirs. It was a beautiful moment of connection that I hope we can use to think about changes that we can start making... not in isolation, but as a collective, because none of us should be tackling this alone.

Until then... I will be wearing my badges and do my bit to create more compassionate services for staff and clients... because we are all human beings.

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