“That’s what associates do,” she said with a smile, her blue eyes crinkling at the corners, making her look carefree, “they form memories and become friends.”
I smiled to myself as my heart warmed and all feelings of my earlier apprehension faded as I watched this interaction between two mental health patients.
Yes, mental health patients.
For a little over a year, I’ve spent my time working at a mental health and behavioral hospital. Primarily, I work with adolescents, but in recent months, I’ve had the opportunity (often times, much to my dismay), of being moved around to several different units throughout the hospital—everything ranging from patients detoxing from drugs and alcohol to severely psychotic adults. As expected when working in the helping profession, I have had very high highs and very low lows throughout my job. In a few short weeks, due to a busier schedule which will involve interning as a therapist and full-time grad-school, I will be transitioning from working full-time to per diem—meaning I will pick up work shifts whenever I can.
It is a bittersweet feeling to know I will be spending less time at the hospital where I learned so much in such a short amount of time, but I know this change will be good for me. As I reflect on my time, I’ve decided to share what I’ve learned both from my co-workers and my patients as a mental health care provider.
What I learned from my patients:
- People will be brutally honest. If I have learned to love anything, I have learned to love honesty. Working with mental health patients (specifically acutely psychotic adults), some days a patient will tell you that you look like a cow, and other days a patient will tell you your eyebrows are gorgeous. When working in mental health, you simultaneously learn to grow thick skin and to expect the unexpected.
- Self care, self care, self care. If there is anything I have learned this past year while both studying to be a therapist and working in the mental health field is the importance of taking care of yourself while taking care of others. When you give most of your time to making sure that others are safe and well, it takes a lot of energy from you emotionally, physically and spiritually. If you expect to do a good job while taking care of others, always remember to take care of yourself.
- Some people don’t want to be saved. One of the hardest lessons I learned was this very lesson, and I am still learning it. I have a hero complex, I have come to realize, and I want to save everyone. Sometimes there have been patients have have reminded me of certain brown-eyed heroin addicts that I have loved with my whole heart, of past best friends that have attempted suicide, and of a very critical father I lost at a young age. Other times there are patients that have simply gripped my very soul and it became my personal mission to save them. However, you can’t help those that aren’t ready for help. Putting in more effort than your patient/client only exhausts you in the end. Instead, I have learned to remind my patients I am for them, but I will not do the work for them.
- Boundaries. Directly related to the above bullet point, I’ve learned the importance of remaining empathetic while distancing yourself.
- Humility. I have a degree in Psychology and I am in graduate school to be a therapist. Even so, there have been times at in which a patient divulges information and I have no idea how best to help that person. And when I expressed my loss for words, some patients have simply thanked me for listening and caring.
What I learned from my co-workers:
- A job is just a job for some. During one of my lunch breaks, someone from upper management sat and chatted with me. She has a job in finances within the hospital. I asked her what interested her in the mental health field, and she told me that she does not have an interest in mental health, only her position. I guess, no matter where you are, for someone people, a job is just a job and nothing more.
- Teamwork. I have learned what it is to be part of a team that works together cohesively and there is always support. Sometimes support looks like staff jumping in front of another staff member when a patient becomes violent. Sometimes it looks like letting another staff member cry on a particularly difficult day and letting them know you’re on their team. Sometimes a team looks like laughing together until you cry because you’ve been through so much and the only thing keeping you together are the people you work with.
- Courage. Quite simply, I have learned courage. I have learned to have the courage to stand up for what I believe in, and the courage to try something new, knowing I may fail…or succeed.
Overall, I have learned the bittersweet beauty of humans as well as the ugliness of humans (the latter from other coworkers more often than patients…). I have learned both humility and strength, and I am truly grateful for this bittersweet experience.