What makes someone an mental health ‘expert’?

I cannot say what has prompted me to write this blog, suffice to say I was recently told an article I’d written, that I had researched extensively and was backed with my personal experience of mental illness, was inadequate. I was asked to get backing from an ‘expert’ (which I tried and failed to do) and this got me thinking!
I have spent years trying to cope with my mental illness on my own, years in and out of hospital, and further years on the road to recovery using various therapies and medications. On my journey I’ve met tens of people, each with their own struggles.
I’ve tried numerous medications so I know what it’s like to decide whether to put up with symptoms or side effects. I know what it’s like to put every ounce of energy into trying to recover, to keep failing and keep getting it wrong so I know what it’s like to feel completely hopeless.
I have spent hours trying to distract myself from intrusive thoughts, sometimes succeeding, often not. I know what it’s like to be completely overwhelmed by my feelings, not have a clue what to do but have to figure it out anyway!
I know what it’s like to feel as though no one understand, as though you’re completely alone and no one will ever be able to help because they just don’t know what it’s like.
When I’m ill, of course, I need support from professionals but I’ve lost count of the number of times they’ve asked me what I need, what will help! They know theoretically which medication would help or what services are available but they always consider me the expert.
As an aside – I have a medical degree, I learnt a lot as a student and when I practiced as a doctor – this knowledge is helpful but in my opinion, no amount of text book learning is equal to experiencing illness itself.
How often, when unwell, taking advice from a doctor, nurse or other professional, do you wander if they have a clue what it’s like to live with your condition? I’ve often thought this about physiotherapists…do they know what it’s like to have extreme pain and push through and do all your prescribed exercises anyway? If they did I think they’d be a bit more congratulatory, maybe throw you a party at every appointment!! I digress!
Don’t get me wrong, I have a lot of respect for medical professionals, they do a difficult job and have incredible knowledge and skills but there’s something about experiencing illness yourself that gives you that bit extra to help your patients.
In my professional life I’ve supported people in the grips of severe mental illness, hallucinating, talking about delusions, self harming or wanting to take their life – every time walking alongside these people has taught me so much.
Research is interesting but personal experience brings it to life.
What’s more, I have a passion for spreading the word about mental illness, for raising awareness and ensuring more people understand what it’s like to live with mental illness.
The ‘experts’ I was asked to get backing from do not have this passion… so I ask for their input and I didn’t hear back.
I never have, and never would, pretend I know everything, which is why I think my combination of degree and personal experience is helpful. As a doctor, the most important skill is to know when you don’t know – I carry this through my work today.
I have experience of a mood disorder and an eating disorder, if I want to find out about schizophrenia or a personality disorder, for example, who do I talk to? Someone sitting in an office who’s read a lot of books?! No! I talk to the people I know who have personal experience – they are the experts in my humble opinion – tell me what you think in the comments below.

8 thoughts on “What makes someone an mental health ‘expert’?

  1. I think this is brilliant. When I had postnatal depression, as lovely and well read as she was, my health visitor was a young lass who had no children of her own at that time. I felt that she just had no idea of how I really felt. Loved this Blog.

    1. Thank Wendy, I wander if we could utilise peer support more? I’ve worked in a couple of places where we used volunteer peer supporters, they’re usually people recovering from illness and working towards paid work and they help people because they know what it’s like! I think this could be useful across all areas.

  2. I am in the UK and the Wellbeing Service that is responsible for me does that. I think peer support is very important. And to h…. with experts. Everything changes constantly and “reality” isn’t the same for everybody anyway. Ah I digress… 🙂

    1. I can see the importance of professionals but to say they are the experts and us experienced ones aren’t, isn’t accurate!
      Interesting point about reality! In my experience it helps to talk about a ‘shared reality’ and an ‘individual’s reality’, then they are all valued…

      1. I like your approach to reality very much. It makes sense to me. And I agree about professionals. Just had a very good encounter with my GP which is so encouraging. Wishing you a good day/evening/afternoon 😊

  3. I think the best “experts” who have helped me are the ones who can see where my expertise is, and how their perspective can support and add to my own. I think book learning has a place, but the over-hyped idea of having to be emotionally removed from a situation in order to understand it is fundamentally flawed.

    1. Yes, good point. The professionals that have helped me the most have helped me discover and engage my expertise. It can feel like we’ve no idea (when unwell) but we do know ourselves best when it comes down to it!

  4. I couldn’t agree with you more. That goes for people helping in the field of addtiction as well. If I’m not getting help from a former addict then I feel that it’s not genuine and they don’t seem qualified.

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