Vulnerability – Of Working In The Mental Health Sector

by | Feb 17, 2018

“Jo mental hospital me kaam karte hain, wo bhi mental ho jate hai”, said one of my colleagues and laughed.
Even though he was joking, I wondered if it’s actually true.
Why do we have scarce professionals in mental health sector?
Among other factors, is it also the fear of being vulnerable?

This fear is more common than what I had thought before coming here to work with Nagpur Mental Hospital. Every other colleague of mine believes that mental health workers are at a higher risk of mental illness than people in other professions. In fact, my mentor (a highly experienced professional in this area) believes that if one gets too involved with the patients, their own mental health is likely to get affected. She also said that people often leave their careers half way due to the fear of being negatively affected by the intense work environment.

It reminds me of the time when I used to have late night conversations with friends over a can of coke and a bowl of noodles in college. I still remember my friend’s face expressing concern (who was a psychology major like me) as she said “Dude, this whole mental health sector is so scary”. In first two years of college I found psychology intriguing and fascinating. However, as we moved on to specializations, case studies and interviews, I started pondering whether the knowledge of mental illnesses and the traumatic experiences is working positively for me, or not. As time passed, I got busy with college and career planning, avoiding these thoughts.

Only after joining the fellowship and working in the mental health sector, those conversations with friends and self, became a reality for me. It was like going back to zero: the state of uncertainty, confusion and doubt. I have been constantly overthinking, and questioning my own potential –

Will I be able to handle such intense work life while maintaining my own well-being?
Do I have the potential to deal with it?
Will I continue to pursue my career in this sector? If not, what will happen to the cause I care for?
What about all the efforts that I have put until now? How will I justify my decisions to family and friends?
Will I be able to ignore the injustice that happens everyday with mentally challenged people in our society?

I don’t know if it is because I got carried away with my emotions in the first few weeks at work. In order to understand the patients, I ended up feeling too much for them which, I think was not the right way of dealing with things. It is indeed disturbing to see someone peeing in their lunch plate, mixing it with water and then eating it or someone refusing food and eating grass with stones instead. But, it is essential to see these behavior just as symptoms of their illness. It’s important to follow your heart but take your brain along with you.

The common causes of most of the mental illnesses involve stress and trauma. When we work with people who experience these, we are likely to get affected if we don’t take precautions. It’s vital to think logically and understand where to draw the line while interacting with the patients and how to cope up with it.
People working in mental health sector are probably more vulnerable to feel similar feelings as patients and are likely to be at higher risk of being affected by the work environment only IF –

  • We forget to focus on our own well-being
  • We don’t treat mental illness as illness

It is often said that “Empathy with detachment” is the main “mantra” in this sector. However, I often wonder – Is it really possible to empathize without any attachment? Doesn’t concern or care come from some kind of attachment?

Empathy could be objective or subjective. When empathy becomes subjective one becomes overly-attached. Feeling detached or overly attached both are risky and harmful in this sector. On one hand, with detachment it is hard to enter someone’s life or their trust zone to help them overcome their struggles and illness. On the other hand, with over-attachment it becomes suffocating being stuck in someone else’s suffering forgetting about your own individual self. In both cases, the process can become frustrating and stressful.

Therefore, it is important to draw a line between attachment and over-attachment. Keeping a certain distance is necessary when dealing with clients however it should not be misinterpreted as detachment. It is not possible to communicate care and concern without some kind of attachment. Objective empathy with compassion allows an individual to extend their help without being trapped into a stressful or emotional twister.

The approach that one takes to understand and respond to the mental illness is the key. Each profession has its own share of struggles and I’m sure they experience vulnerability in some form or the other. As the days pass, I’m encountering new challenges and a different set of questions but after all, they are instrumental in getting clarity. Who knows, I might even stumble upon a Pandora’s Box, or more exciting, a treasure chest!

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1 Comment

  1. saumyadebdasgupta

    Thanks for this Aparna! This was such an important read! I have been thinking about it a lot and it beats me how you find that place of just the right amount of attachment to the patients (in your case) and more generally to the cause at hand. It would be fascinating to know how you have found that space (if you have). I definitely agree that we need “objective empathy with compassion” to hit the right spots but its such a difficult thing to do!


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