More Than Just a Body With a Broken Brain: Why I’m Choosing Social Work

It would be nice to be called “Doctor.”

It would be nice to be paid a very high salary and have a stable job, and to be able to produce an official piece of paper proving that I am Smart.

It would be nice to be published in prestigious journals, to receive emails from others curious about my work. It would be nice to be quoted in newspapers and magazines as an Expert.

It would be nice to be part of the elite–the less than 1% of Americans who have a doctorate.

It would be nice, but it won’t be me. At least, not for a while.

Until recently, I left unquestioned the notion that I want a PhD in clinical psychology. I just wanted it. Why? Well, it would allow me to be a therapist, which is what I want. I would get paid a lot. It would carry prestige.

But gradually my resolve started to break down and I started to wonder, Why?

I discovered that I disliked research. When I told people this, they were often shocked. But aren’t you curious? Don’t you care why people think and feel the way they do? Don’t you want to understand?

Yes, I am, and I do. I’m deeply curious. That’s why I read voraciously. And I am more than happy to read all the answers to my questions when they’re published rather than to work long days in a basement lab somewhere.

I can do research, I’m sure. But it’s not what I love, and there are others who want this much more.

The turning point came when I attended a panel of graduate students in psychology, along with an admissions person for a doctoral program in clinical psych. They all told us that when we apply for grad school, our entire resume and personal statement should discuss nothing but our research experience. Everything else I’ve done wouldn’t even matter–not the year I spent as an RA, not the three years I’ve spent as a member (and, then, a leader) in a sexual health and assault peer education group, not the summer I volunteered at a camp for at-risk kids in New York, not the initiative I started to implement a peer listening program at Northwestern, not my internship at the National Alliance on Mental Illness.

I shouldn’t even include it, they told me, because it would annoy the admissions people.

The work that I love, the lives that I hope I’ve changed–it would be an annoyance.

At first, I thought it wasn’t a big deal. Who cares what I put on my application as long as I get in?

But then I learned more. I learned that I probably wouldn’t be accepted if I admitted that my goal is to be a therapist, because they want to spend their money on someone who would bring prestige to their institution by publishing research. I realized that I would have nobody to turn to for support–no mentors–because I’d have to hide my dreams from them. I learned that clinical training in clinical psych programs is mostly lacking (ironically), so I wouldn’t be learning the practical skills that I need to help people.

And, most of all, I understood that my time in graduate school would be miserable beyond belief, because I would be living a lie, facing extreme pressure to publish or perish, and wasting at least five or six years of my life. During that time, my life would be completely on hold–I wouldn’t be able to move, work, or start a family, if the opportunity presented itself.

The future that I had once dreamed about turned into a nightmare.

It was then that I finally stopped listening to my professors–who, of course, all have PhDs–and listened instead to the friends and family I have who actually are therapists, or hoping to get there. And increasingly I understood that a masters in social work would be a better option.

MSW programs emphasize learning practical skills, and many of them have you start a clinical internship as soon as you start the program, because the best way to learn is by experience. They understand that people aren’t just isolated brains inside bodies, that circumstances affect individuals and that psychological problems aren’t always caused by faulty brain chemistry. They emphasize understanding societal inequality, working with marginalized groups, and picking up where clinical psychology leaves off.

I’ve been told that I’m “too smart” for a masters in social work, that I will be “offended” when I see how little they pay me. People who say these things must not know me very well. Although I wanted a PhD before, I’ve never really needed my career to make me feel important. I don’t need to be important. I just need to be helpful.

As for “too smart,” that’s ridiculous. The helping professions need more smart people.

The truth is that, in my hour of need, it wasn’t a man with a white lab coat and a doctorate who saved me. It was–as corny as this is going to sound–the social justice movement. That was what finally taught me that my feelings are justified, that my thoughts have merit, that my words matter.

I finally learned to see myself as more than just a body with a broken brain. I’m a whole person enmeshed in particular circumstances, and the interaction between the two has made me who I am now.

I still agree with what I’ve written before. Medication can be useful. Therapy works. Psychiatric labels are important.

But my strengths and goals require a different sort of education than what I could receive in a doctoral program, and they point me to a different sort of career than a PhD would prepare me for.

True, I’ll earn less money. There will be hard times. There will, I’m sure, be bureaucracy, budget cuts, and crappy bosses.  There will be days when I don’t love it.

But there will not be days when I’m living a lie. There will not be days when I’m sitting in an expensive lab at a prestigious university, doing work that may be meaningful, that may get published, that may be improved upon, that may someday, maybe, help someone. Maybe.

And I have nothing but respect for people who want to do that. I admire that, and maybe someday I’ll return to school for a PhD. But at this stage in my life, it’s just not for me. After all, I can always get a PhD; what I can’t do is unget one and unwaste all that time.

I don’t expect every single day to be productive, every session to help every client. But I do expect that at the end of my life I will be able to look back and know beyond a doubt that, in my own way, I changed things for the better.

That’s why I’m choosing social work.

P.S. A little disclaimer–I’m not looking for any comments on how I’m wrong about the doctoral route or why I should reconsider my decision. There’s a lot more than went into it than I could even discuss here, and there are enough Older and Wiser People trying to tell me how to live as is. Thanks. 🙂

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Anonymity and Mental Illness

The stigma of mental illness has many negative consequences, such as decreased access to employment and housing, barriers to seeking treatment, and many broken friendships and relationships.

What it also does, unfortunately, is make it much harder for people who’ve suffered from mental illness to speak about it publicly, using their real names.

I’ve been thinking about this because North by Northwestern, our campus magazine, ran a feature in its spring issue about mental illness at Northwestern. Overall, the piece was great and discussed how our academic system may be contributing to unhealthy levels of stress. The author of the piece interviewed two students who spoke about their experiences with depression and anxiety.

But both of the students’ names were changed for the article, and it bothered me.

For the record, I would never begrudge an individual for choosing to speak about his or her mental illness under a pseudonym. We all have different priorities, and not everyone has decided to spend their life advocating for those with mental illnesses (as, for instance, I have). Even those who do may decide that using a pseudonym is in their best interest–for instance, this blogger whom I greatly respect.

The magazine, however, could have chosen to find sources who would be willing to let their real names be printed. I know it could’ve, because those people exist on our campus. I’m one of them. Many of my friends are, too.

This is important for several reasons, some short-term and some long-term.

The short-term reason is that seeing fellow students speak publicly about their experiences with mental illness can make a huge difference in the life of someone who’s just starting to acknowledge and deal with their own illness. It lets them know they’re not alone and gives them hope for the future.

It can also give them a specific person to reach out to. After I started writing about depression, friends, acquaintances, and even strangers started writing to me, sharing their stories, and asking for advice. I heard from friends that I knew were struggling and friends who seemed to have everything together. I heard from a guy who’d told me once that he’d had depression briefly but pulled himself out of it on his own. I felt humbled to know the truth.

A friend of mine who spoke in a panel about her eating disorder once told me that she had the same experience. She was quoted in an article about the panel, and afterwards people reached out to her about it.

There’s a bigger picture, though, as well. Every time someone “goes public” about a mental illness, they chip away at the culture of secrecy that surrounds it. And the more of us do it, the harder it’ll be to deny us jobs, cut off friendships with us, continue believing that we’re weak and lazy, and be ashamed of us.

I’m glad those two students spoke to NBN, and I know it was hard for them to do even knowing that their names would not be in print. But NBN had a chance to do something really important, and they missed that chance.

As I was writing this post, I found out that there’s someone pretty powerful who recently took that chance. During his speech for people who have lost family members in the military, Vice President Biden talked about the deaths of his wife and daughter in 1972. Then, he said, “I probably shouldn’t say this with the press here, but it’s more important–you’re more important.” Then he went on:

For the first time in my life, I understood how someone could consciously decide to commit suicide. Not because they were deranged, not because they were nuts, but because they had been to the top of the mountain and they just knew in their heart they’d never get there again.

Biden’s not the only one, of course. Plenty of well-known people have spoken about mental illness, such as Rachel Maddow, William Styron, and Demi Lovato.

In his seminal book on depression, The Noonday Demon (which I have coincidentally just finished reading), Andrew Solomon intentionally avoids using pseudonyms whenever possible. On the first page of the book, he writes,

I asked my subjects to allow me to use their actual names, because real names lend authority to real stories. In a book one of the aims of which is to remove the burden of stigma from mental illness, it is important not to play to that stigma by hiding the identities of depressed people.

I believe that when writing about mental illness, one must be cautious of the status quo. With regards to mental illness, as with regards to just about everything else, the status quo can be a dangerous thing. You cannot think and write about the tragedy of mental illness without also acknowledging the tragedy of stigma, which pushes so many of us to stay silent for too long. In my case, it was eight years. For others, it’s a lifetime.

Accepting the use of pseudonyms in one’s work just because that’s what’s always been done, or because finding interview subjects who are willing to use their real names might be difficult, does an injustice to everyone who suffers from the continuing presence of stigma.

Sunday Link Roundup

So I’ve decided to dedicate one post each week to sharing all the awesome things I read elsewhere on the Internet. Hopefully I actually remember to do this each week. 🙂

1. On the benefits of psychiatric labels. I’ve written about this before, but this blogger says it beautifully: “My labels have freed me to live in better harmony with the person I wish to be.”

2. On sexual harassment as an exercise of power.

3. On casual sex and how, for some people, it’s just not that great. I can really relate to this.

4. On “Straight White Male” is the lowest difficulty setting in life. This super-controversial post uses video games as a metaphor for privilege. It’s been accused of ignoring issues like class, but I think we can all agree that Metaphors Are Imperfect.

5. On the (in)visibility of bisexuality. Also, everything else on this blog is fantastic.

6. On Mitt Romney as a bully. I wrote about this too, but this post explores more facets of the story. “The fact that so many responses to Romney’s abuse categorise it as pranking or fun rather than bullying says a lot about why this country has such a big bullying problem. The refusal to identify what he did as wrong, and to connect the dots on what it means politically, speaks to dangerous social attitudes.”

7. Last but not least, this blogger dedicated an entire post to why my blog is awesome. Needless to say, I feel really really special. 😀

What You’re Really Saying When You Say that Suicide is “Selfish”

I’m still thinking about the Chet Hanks suicide thing from last week and the various responses to it that I saw online. Specifically, I cited two comments that referred to suicide as “selfish.”

“Selfish” has to be one of the most common adjectives people think of when thinking about suicide. Those of us who are involved in mental health advocacy could probably rant at you for hours about how this word perpetuates the stigma that mental illness and suicide carry in our society, how useless and counterproductive it is to accuse a suicidal person of being “selfish,” and so on. In fact, if you get nothing else out of this post, I hope you reconsider using that word to describe suicide if you’ve done so before.

But I can understand where this sentiment comes from. While everyone loses loved ones at some point in their lives, relatively few people experience suicidality first-hand. For this reason, people understand the latter situation much less than the former. Faced with the thought that someone you love might kill themselves and put you through all the resulting grief just because of some inner turmoil that you can’t see or understand, it makes sense that you might feel that suicide is selfish.

At the same time, though, conceptualizing suicide as a “selfish act” sends the message that people somehow “owe it” to their loved ones to stay alive despite immense emotional pain. When you say that suicide is “selfish,” you’re implying–even if you don’t mean to–that the individual’s pain, as well as their potential to improve, isn’t what matters. What matters is how they’ll make the people around them feel.

I don’t mean to discount the grief that people feel when someone they love commits suicide–that’s real, valid, and deserves attention. And, obviously, I believe that people should not commit suicide. But I believe that because I also believe that people can recover from the pain that’s causing them to consider suicide, not because they owe it to others to live.

What all of this comes down to is that most people do not (and perhaps cannot) understand what actually goes through a suicidal person’s mind. Maybe they assume that suicidal people are just sad the way all of us sometimes get sad, except maybe a bit more so. (I honestly don’t know how mentally healthy people think about suicide because I haven’t been one for a while.) It would indeed be rather selfish to put your friends and family through so much pain just because you felt sad one day.

But that’s not how suicide works.

The way I see it, the tragedy of suicide is not (or is not only) the fact that an individual’s suicide also hurts others. Rather, it’s that the individual could have found a way to heal, be happy, and live out the rest of his or her life. Calling suicide a “selfish” thing to do erases that latter tragedy and implies that our primary purpose in life is not to create a meaningful and worthwhile life for ourselves, but to keep our friends and family happy at all costs.

Our first priority should be to convince those who want to take their own lives that those lives are intrinsically valuable and should be preserved for their own sake. Only when they’ve accepted that premise can they even begin to think clearly about their obligations and interactions with other people.

Telling a suicidal person that suicide is “selfish” only reinforces the guilt they already feel. People should choose to live because their lives feel worth living to them, not out of a sense of obligation towards others.

Note: Since this is quite a sensitive topic both for me and probably for many readers, please try to be especially careful with your comments. I reserve the right to delete any comments that I feel may trigger people, even if they’re completely on-topic.

Empathy and Leadership: Why Romney Would be a Terrible President

What do we look for in a presidential candidate? Political experience, intelligence, charisma, and confidence are probably high up on the list. Good looks and an adherence to Christianity clearly don’t hurt either.

But what about empathy?

What terrifies me the most about the scant possibility of a Romney presidency is not the fact that I disagree with his political ideology. Rather, it’s Romney’s seemingly complete lack of empathy.

This thought first occurred to me back when the “Seamus incident” made the news a few months ago. But one can easily argue that the incident doesn’t exactly prove that Romney is a heartless robot–after all, the victim in question was a dog, not a human, and who really knows how the dog felt anyway?

Slightly less ambiguous is this new bit of insight into Romney’s past:

Friedemann entered Stevens Hall off the school’s collegiate quad to find Romney marching out of his own room ahead of a prep school posse shouting about their plan to cut Lauber’s hair. Friedemann followed them to a nearby room where they came upon Lauber, tackled him and pinned him to the ground. As Lauber, his eyes filling with tears, screamed for help, Romney repeatedly clipped his hair with a pair of scissors.

This is what Mitt Romney did to a classmate at his boarding school when he was a senior. The classmate, John Lauber, was presumed to be gay and wore his bleached-blond hair long–at least, until Romney decided to do something about it.

According to the Washington Post, this story was remembered and corroborated independently by five of Romney’s former classmates. Romney’s response:

“Back in high school, I did some dumb things and if anybody was hurt by that or offended, obviously I apologize for that…I don’t remember that incident,” Romney said, laughing. “I certainly don’t believe that I thought the fellow was homosexual. That was the furthest thing from our minds back in the 1960s, so that was not the case.”

I think it’s interesting that, despite claiming not to remember this incident, Romney nevertheless seems to file it into that large category of Dumb Things Teenagers Do. We all have those things, of course. For me, it was writing bad poetry and crushing on unattainable guys. For more typical teenagers, it’s probably something like getting really drunk when their parents are out of town and throwing up all over the Persian rug.

For the teenage Romney, though, it’s assaulting a fellow student because he’s (ostensibly) gay.

(Incidentally, Romney’s campaign has apparently been trying to get other former classmates of his to speak up in support of him. Good luck with that.)

It’s easy to make the argument that this happened decades ago and that Romney is probably a Completely Different Person now. Perhaps. But one writer on Mother Jones, discussing what “Romney the teenager” can tell us about “Romney the man,” says:

Romney the man has denied, and repeatedly denied yesterday, even remembering this incident. Sure, it was half a century ago, but he led a posse of his friends, tackled John Lauber in a hallway, dragged him into a bathroom, and then chopped off his hair while he struggled in terror. Even if you grant that this kind of extreme behavior was more common in a 1960s prep school than it is today, it’s really not the kind of thing you’d forget.

 

At least, you shouldn’t. So either Romney has done this kind of thing so often that the Lauber incident just blends into all the others, which suggests a far more vicious childhood than he’s owned up to, or else he remembers it just fine and is simply lying about it.

Furthermore, Romney has made his position on LGBT people clear more recently, too. As Governor of Massachusetts, he abolished a group looking into the issue of bullying and suicide in LGBT teenagers. One of his spokespeople outed a transgender woman running for political office in the same state, ending her career. Romney has also signed the National Organization for Marriage’s pledge, stating that he would support a constitutional amendment defining marriage as between a man and a woman, and donated $10,000 to that organization to support Proposition 8 in California. Of his stance on gay marriage as governor of Massachusetts, Romney has said, “On my watch, we fought hard and prevented Massachusetts from becoming the Las Vegas of gay marriage.”

So, while we can be reasonably sure that Romney wouldn’t physically bully anyone these days, I’m not so sure that his ability to empathize with people different from him has evolved at all.

Unfortunately for us–if Romney gets elected–empathy is essential for good leadership. (A U.S. Army Colonel makes that case very persuasively in this Washington Post column.) By definition, leaders are in a place of privilege compared to those they lead, so if they want to know how best to serve the people who elected them, they must be able to understand them and their lives.

For instance, take bullying. It’s one thing to take a stand against bullying because you were once bullied yourself, and another thing entirely to understand the harm that bullying does to individuals, families, communities, and society as a whole, without having experienced it firsthand. Since presidential candidates tend to be male, white, wealthy, Christian, straight, cisgender, able-bodied, and so on, they are unlikely to have experienced things like bullying firsthand. That is why having empathy is essential if they are to understand this increasingly politicized issue.

For a politician, being empathic doesn’t necessarily mean you have to be a bleeding-heart liberal; it just means you have to be able to understand how people different from you actually think, feel, and choose. You could still, for instance, choose to limit government spending for economic reasons while acknowledging and genuinely regretting the fact that your choices may hurt some people. You could propose and support ways of solving issues like social inequality without increasing government spending.You could understand that poor people are not always to blame for their own predicament, even if you don’t think that bringing them out of it is the government’s job.

You could recognize that you disagree with gay marriage because of your religious beliefs, but understand that not everyone shares your beliefs and not everyone should have to live by them. You could disagree with gay marriage because of your religious beliefs, but realize that gay and lesbian teenagers still deserve protection from bullying.

You could, in other words, be a Republican with a heart.

In short, having empathy doesn’t mean being politically liberal. There are plenty of liberals who seem to lack empathy, and there are–hopefully–conservatives who have it. But Romney isn’t one of them. And that, much more so than his politics, is why I really hope he’ll never be President.