Last week it was reported that almost half of NHS psychologists should be on the couch themselves – an astonishing 46 per cent suffer from symptoms of depression, according to a survey by the British Psychological Society. Here, a psychologist with substantial experience offers a candid account of their own ordeal some years.
I am sitting opposite my sixth patient of the day. She is describing a terrible incident in her childhood when she was abused, sexually and physically, by both of her parents. I am nodding, listening and hoping I appear as if I appear normal. Inside, however, I feel anything but.
My head is thick – as if I’m thinking through porridge. I find myself tuning out and switching to autopilot. I put it down to tiredness – I haven’t slept well recently; last night I managed just two hours – but after the session I’m disappointed in myself. I’m worried that I might have let down my patient and I feel a bit of a failure, but I tell no one.
One week later, I am in my car, driving across a bridge. Everything should be wonderful – my partner has a new job, my career as a psychologist in the NHS is going well, plus it’s almost Christmas, the second with our young child, and we’re readying ourselves for a move to London.
Yet, my mind is thick again. My only lucid thought is, “What if I turned the steering wheel and drove into the bridge support? What if I stuck my foot on the pedal and went straight off the edge? Wouldn’t that be so much easier?”
I grip the steering wheel and force myself to think, instead, of my partner and child. They are the two people who get me home safely.
It is the sort of anecdote I have heard from clients time and time again. I became a psychologist because I have a natural nurturing tendency – I never dreamt I would be the vulnerable one. But 10 years ago I found myself suffering from an extremely severe episode of depression that lasted three months, left me unable to work for six weeks and, at my very lowest, saw me contemplating suicide.
I’m certain part of the reason that I sank so low is that, even in the mental health profession, I felt that there was a stigma attached to depression – which meant, even though I had a supportive boss, that I was reticent to admit, or possibly even recognise, that I needed help.
At the time I saw up to six clients a day, five days a week, and my caseload was full of people with heavyweight problems: people who were sexually abused as children by their parents, brothers, sisters, uncles and grandparents; people with borderline personality disorder and post-traumatic stress disorder; people who had lived through horrific accidents, and whose operations had gone horribly wrong; asylum seekers who had been tortured. All in a day’s work.
I had never suffered from a mental illnesses myself and, with the exception of compulsory group counselling during my psychology training, I had never had therapy. But this was part of the problem.
As frontline professionals who listen to some of the most horrific and distressing experiences imaginable, it is surprising that counselling is not yet compulsory for all NHS clinical psychologists, as a means of supporting them.
Particularly as it is obligatory for psychotherapists and counsellors. Had I been going to weekly therapy at the time, my symptoms might have been spotted and nipped in the bud, before I suffered a full breakdown.
It began very suddenly and, despite my training, I had no idea it was depression at all, at first – just that I was finding it difficult to sleep. I’d go to bed feeling tired after a long day in work but wake at 1.30am , then lie there for the rest of the night, worrying.
I tried hot baths, warm milk and camomile tea, everything. But nothing worked. The lack of sleep started taking its toll so I went to my GP who prescribed sleeping tablets. I took Mogadon (or Temazapam) but they were hopeless. Another GP suggested antidepressants but Prozac did nothing and Seroxat made me feel even worse, much worse.