Dr Young is a specialty trainee in psychiatry. She is one of 25 women to be highlighted as part of a special project that celebrates the stories of 25 amazing women psychiatrists.
Dr Young's story
There is a pool of talent in psychiatry formed who have seen both sides of the coin, psychiatrists who have lived experience of mental illness. To quote Dr Rebecca Lawrence: ‘‘One in four people experience a mental health problem of some kind each year. To demand that psychiatrists come from among the mentally unblemished is not only unrealistic, it would mean a potential waste of talent and empathy that we can scarcely afford”1.
My story, as told below, is of being part of the one in four, of living with a mental illness. It is also a glimpse into the life and career path of a woman living with mental illness and working as a psychiatrist.
I believe empathy goes a long way in medicine, and particularly so in psychiatry. In a general sense, having insider knowledge gives individuals an advantage; in psychiatry it gives an extra dimension of empathy and understanding, albeit within the scope of our own experiences.
Also though, in the case of psychiatrists with a mental health diagnosis it would be an injustice not additionally to acknowledge the barriers, walls and hurdles that come with having a mental illness, whilst also working as a doctor in the same field.
As a group, doctors across all specialties have a poor reputation as patients; we tend to ignore or minimise health problems, and in turn often seek medical attention late. Stress and work pressures can combine also, and the above can lead to a toxic combination, burnout, and even death.
Support is vital, and peer support invaluable. Also too is raising visibility. An example of positive steps being taken towards this include the Doctor’s Support Network twitter campaign #AndMe, which reinforces the strengths that come with working with a mental health diagnosis by encouraging visibility of those within the profession who have a mental health diagnosis.
In a similar vein I give my story below, to increase visibility and to highlight the successes that are possible, whilst also negotiating a mental health diagnosis.
As psychiatry draws from the pool of talent and empathy that those with lived experience offer, I would embolden others who can perhaps relate to my story to give real consideration to a career in psychiatry.
When I first set out as a newly qualified doctor, I landed in at the deep end. I worked on a large busy ward and quickly found myself consumed by work. By the end of my first rotation it was common to work beyond the hours on my rota. I lost touch with the cornerstones of my life outside of medicine and in turn with myself. With the stressors of work and events outside of it, my mental health took the toll and I was drawn ever closer to the edge, staring into the depths of a severe depression.
It was with some surprise to those around me (who observed me working diligently on the wards) that less than six months after starting my professional career I suddenly found that I had become a patient myself. I went on to spend three months in a psychiatric unit to try and resolve the internal crisis that had peaked as my depression plummeted.
During this time I remember feeling so lost, and didn’t know how to look ahead again. One day a nurse was doodling and encouraged me to join him, an Occupational Therapist later invited me to join an art group. I took the opportunity for time off the ward, we drank tea and listened to Classic FM and slowly, tentatively, I dipped into art again.
Creativity slowly came back and with it a feeling of possibilities. Creativity is a form of self-actualisation, it builds self-esteem, self-confidence. It helped give clarity to my thoughts, fogged by my illness and the treatments for it. It gently guided my voice back and with time, my voice helped rebuild my fractured self.
I later moved on to my early training years, where I cared for a few memorable patients, striking as they highlighted to me psychiatry in practice. I remember one in particular, whom I met whilst working in orthopaedics, a middle-aged man who became depressed after a difficult hip operation. Another man I saw whilst on a GP rotation was also suffering with marked depression which was greatly impacting upon his life.
As I treated their illness and gave time and care, I instilled hope as best as I was able. Over time, I saw them gradually recover from their mood disturbance and I found hope had also been instilled in myself, alongside a deepening interest in Psychiatry.
One of my later rotations was in a psychiatric unit. It was a strange experience initially, having only known a ward from the other side of the coin. I disclosed fairly early into the rotation, albeit with much reserve and caution, that I had a mental health diagnosis. I was warmly welcomed by my colleagues, and over time as I saw the complete picture of mental healthcare, I could see a place for myself, and it felt more and more like coming home.
My colleagues encouraged me to pursue a career in psychiatry, and we would have long discussions about topics on mental health and the issues around it, further fuelling my sense of curiosity and wish to learn more. I took the plunge and applied for a Psychiatry Core Training programme.
Mental health fluctuates, for some more than others, as do many things. As the tides come and go and the waves rise and crash, I have learnt that structures, anchors even, are vital for steadying oneself against the ebbs and flows. They can take various forms, for me creativity gives root to a strong foundation.
I am living with a severe and enduring mental illness, and I also work as a psychiatrist. The path is not smooth, currently I am in the midst of a relapse, such is life. However, creativity keeps me going. On my darkest days it sheds light and helps to instil hope in myself.
Creativity takes myriad forms and what is therapeutic varies for each person, whether it is active or observing. With a mental illness to exist can feel unbearable, to have a voice and a sense of self are the first steps towards resilience, and it is the resilience that gets us through. By increasing self-awareness we can give ourselves the self-care we deserve and give so generously to others.