Heal Thyself, Then Heal Others? The Power of Lived Experiences

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Psychiatric Times, Vol 38, Issue 11,

45% to 75% of mental health professionals have personal experience with mental health care services, yet they may feel shame, embarrassment, and fear of being judged negatively for it.

COMMENTARY

Although about 45% to 75% of mental health professionals have personal experience with mental health care services, overall the cultural norm has been not to be open about this fact.1 Indeed, professionals often perceive personal mental health problems as a weakness, feeling they should be able to cope on their own.2 Similarly, psychiatrists have been trained to separate the personal from the professional, yet they have a tendency to self-diagnose and self-treat.3 Correspondingly, they may experience shame, embarrassment, and fear of being judged negatively if they disclose their own mental health histories.

Findings from a recent randomized controlled trial, however, reveal that physician self-disclosure of lived experience improves mental health attitudes among medical students.4 Patients may also profit from professionals harnessing lived experiences.

However, little is known on how to disclose and use experiential knowledge in a professional and appropriate fashion.5 Research illustrates that the mental health systems in many Western countries (eg, Australia, United Kingdom, United States, the Netherlands, and Israel) have struggled to meaningfully incorporate the lived experiences of professionals.5 To address this deficit, several pilot studies in the Netherlands have focused on the implementation of experiential knowledge in mental health contexts, including peer consultation groups for psychiatrists whose personal experiences could inform their medical practice.

Defining and Exploring Experiential Knowledge

Experiential knowledge can be defined as the ability to handle or resolve a problem based on an individual’s own experience.6 It may refer to the emotional impact or to practical, spiritual, and existential insights that come with coping with certain types of distress. It has been introduced as a new source of knowledge next to professional and scientific knowledge and has been increasingly acknowledged and formalized.7,8

A small body of literature has studied how traditional mental health professionals have used experiential knowledge. To date, these studies have mainly looked at applied professions, such as social workers and nurses who followed postbachelor trainings, stimulating the integration of the personal-professional identity.5


The psychiatrist is often the lead member of a care team, so harnessing lived experiences may be considered a particularly risky investment. They may feel concerned about losing authority or blurring the boundaries between professionals and patients.


Being aware of one’s vulnerabilities is basic to the training of psychoanalysts and the Rogerian tradition. However, the explicit use of lived experiences in mental health care practice to date has been limited to in vivo self-disclosures.5 Although some psychiatrists like Ahmed Hankir, MBChB, MRCPsych, portray themselves as “wounded healers,” exposing a personal weakness generally has a negative connotation. At the same time, a broader research project in the Netherlands is now exploring the use of experiential knowledge by psychiatrists.8 The psychiatrist is often the lead member of a care team, so harnessing lived experiences may be considered a particularly risky investment. They may feel concerned about losing authority or blurring the boundaries between professionals and patients. There may also be overidentifying with and projecting issues onto patients.9 Anecdotal evidence suggests that psychiatrists seem wary or do not know how to navigate this.10

The Many Challenges of Sharing Personal Experiences

Many potential obstacles keep mental health professionals, particularly psychiatrists, from harnessing lived experiences in clinical practice. Although there is growing empirical evidence that patients feel well supported by caretakers who share their experiences, no evidence exists that would also apply in the case of psychiatrists using their lived experience.11 Using lived experience is also often associated with (inappropriate) disclosures and labeled as unprofessional. The fear is that it may undermine the supposed neutrality of the clinician. Consequently, psychiatrists are not trained to transform their lived experiences into experiential knowledge. Without proper training, many are insufficiently equipped to use their own experiences as part of their treatments.

Furthermore, they were taught that personal disclosures may put additional stress on, and thus further burden, already vulnerable patients.12 They may fear it will lead to role confusion and are more comfortable in a role as unimpaired professional, especially when facing difficult decisions, such as (forensic) risk assessments.

Finding a Way Forward

In the Netherlands, psychiatrists recently joined a broader movement in which mental health professionals reveal their lived experience. They come together in peer consultation groups with colleagues to explore the meaning of their personal experiences in a professional context.

Their reflections have given rise to a few preliminary observations and guidelines. The use of experiential knowledge does not necessarily entail disclosing one’s entire private life. It requires assessing what would be useful to patients as they recover from (severe) mental health distress and trauma. If psychiatrists choose to make personal disclosures, they should take place in a training or peer consultation context, often starting with sharing a personal recovery story and unraveling its key elements.

When implicitly or explicitly using their personal experiences as a resource for patients, psychiatrists may contribute to a culture change in which stigma and shame around mental distress are relieved. Lived experiences are related to not only a specific diagnosis but also broader insights related to life, such as knowing how it is to live in different realities, surviving emotional or physical trauma, and suffering from loneliness or social injustice. Psychiatrists who talk about their own struggles in these areas could serve as positive role models for their team and patients.

In general, patients express appreciation when nurses and social workers talk about their own recovery paths.13 Sharing personal experience can humanize and strengthen therapeutic relationships.

The Bottom Line

The rationale for using lived experiences is increasingly accepted in mental health settings. However, psychiatrists appear to have reservations about this development and may hesitate because of assumptions related to their profession, as well as a lack of training. Patients seem to benefit from nurses and social workers who share their own lived experiences. Further research on whether and how this applies to psychiatrists and psychologists is recommended.

What are your thoughts? Have you (or would you) shared lived experiences to support a patient’s journey? Let us know what you think at PTEditor@mjhlifesciences.com.

Ms Karbouniaris is a researcher and lecturer at the Research Centre for Social Innovation at Utrecht University of Applied Sciences, the Netherlands. Dr van Os is a psychiatrist, Dutch professor, and chair of Division Neuroscience at University Medical Center Utrecht, Utrecht University, the Netherlands.

References

1. Zerubavel N, Wright MO. The dilemma of the wounded healer. Psychotherapy (Chic). 2012;49(4):482-491. 

2. Tay S, Alcock K, Scior K. Mental health problems among clinical psychologists: Stigma and its impact on disclosure and help-seeking. J Clin Psychol. 2018;74(9):1545-1555.

3. Gerada C, Warner L, Jones MR, Al-Najjar Z. The wounded healer: report on the first 10 years of practitioner health service. GP Health Service Practitioner Health Programme. National Health Service. October 2018. Accessed September 30, 2021. https://www.practitionerhealth.nhs.uk/media/content/files/PHP-report-web%20version%20final(1).pdf

4. Martin A, Chilton J, Gothelf D, Amsalem D. Physician self-disclosure of lived experience improves mental health attitudes among medical students: a randomized study. J Med Educ Curric Dev. 2020;7:2382120519889352.

5. Karbouniaris S, Abma T, Wilken JP, Weerman A. Use of experiential knowledge by mental health professionals and its contribution to recovery: literature review. J Recover Ment Heal. 2020;4:2371-2376.

6. Castro EM, Van Regenmortel T, Sermeus W, Vanhaecht K. Patients’ experiential knowledge and expertise in health care: a hybrid concept analysis. Soc Theory Heal. 2019;17(3):307-330.

7. Byrne L, Roennfeldt H, Davidson L, et al. To disclose or not to disclose? peer workers impact on a culture of safe disclosure for mental health professionals with lived experience. Psychol Serv. Published online May 27, 2021.

8. Karbouniaris S, Abma T, Wilken JP, Weerman A. Experiential knowledge and its contribution to recovery oriented mental health care services. Utrecht. 2020. Accessed September 30, 2021. https://research.vumc.nl/ws/portalfiles/portal/18077848/HU_NVvpvoorjaarscongres2020.pdf

9. Straussner SLA, Senreich E, Steen JT. Wounded healers: a multistate study of licensed social workers’ behavioral health problems. Soc Work. 2018;63(2):125-133. 

10. The contribution to practice made by psychiatrists who have a personal experience of mental illness. The Royal Australian & New Zealand College of Psychiatrists. November 2016. Accessed September 30, 2021. https://www.ranzcp.org/news-policy/policy-and-advocacy/position-statements/psychiatrists-with-lived-experience-mental-illness

11. Byrne L, Happell B, Reid-Searl K. Lived experience practitioners and the medical model: world’s colliding? J Ment Health. 2016;25(3):217-223.

12. Marais G, Mcbeath A. Therapists ’ lived experience of self-disclosure. European Journal for Qualitative Research in Psychotherapy. 2021;11:72-86.

13. Oates J, Drey N, Jones J. ‘Your experiences were your tools’. How personal experience of mental health problems informs mental health nursing practice. J Psychiatr Ment Health Nurs. 2017;24(7):471-479. ❒