Not too long ago, I posted on Twitter (which is linked to my Facebook), and I asked whether fighting for mental health, at the cost of your own mental health, was worth it.
I received a plethora of responses. As always I wasn’t able to respond to all of them, but I found each of them equally valuable, and I’d like to share a few below.
Basically, some suggested that it is worth it, because everything you do comes with an associated cost to your mental health. Most of my friends, however, strongly felt that it was not worth it. That nothing was worth sacrificing your own mental health for.
Now, there is a reason I put up this post when I did, and there is a reason that post features in this article. But before I get to that, I want to briefly touch upon the two sides that came forward in that thread.
My friend who suggested that since everything has an associated mental cost, it is worth it, was right in his own manner. Everything you do, and anything you intend on doing that you hope will be disruptive, definitely comes with a lot of baggage: sleepless nights, stressed out existence, severe anxiety, the continuous anticipation of failure, bursts of anger and impatience, and so on and so forth. There is a reason such ventures are literally categorized into something called the Suicide Quadrant.
However, my own leaning was always with the friends who said that it’s not worth it. It just seemed intuitive to not sacrifice your own mental health for any cause, especially if it was to do with mental health itself. One friend’s comment about not being able to pour from an empty cup really got through to me.
But, for some reason, I wasn’t ready to accept that, or to resign myself to knowing that I couldn’t do it. So, I chose to not accept their advice (though I doubt they knew when they were commenting that I was actively looking for advice), and went, instead, with the former; this I find ironic in hindsight, because I remember reading that friend’s comment and almost laughing it off instantly.
Why did I do that?
I ran into a friend at a mutual friend’s wedding. Okay, fine. We’re acquaintances, but Facebook thinks we’re friends. We hadn’t met or spoken in ages, but she had heard through another mutual friend that I was working for a mental health startup. And I will never forget what she said to me:
“It’s so great that you’re doing this! And it seems like such a natural progression as well, because you’re always writing about mental health and sharing things about it. But I’m so happy that you’re doing this — not just talking the talk, but actually walking the walk!”
And that was enough to pump me to keep going.
I finally did last month (March) what I had been thinking about since December — I resigned. I left my post of ‘Chief Operating Officer’ at a ‘multidisciplinary therapy center’.
And it was, by far, one of the toughest calls I’ve had to make.
Well, that’s an interesting story, but that’s not really the story for this article. But I’ll sum it up.
What it was at the end of the day was a job. And I lost sight of that. I took it on as something bigger, something greater, something that I could be proud to be associated with and ‘own’. And in words, I was motivated towards the same by my employer — I was the ‘COO’ after all. But in reality? It was a glorified secretarial position.
To add to that? My employer believed very firmly in the number of years you have been alive as being a large (if not sole) determinant of your capabilities, and since I’m a quarter-century old, I was constantly reminded of that. To the point that I now find myself constantly wondering if I even know anything, or if I’m even worth anything, or if I can even effect any good, because, after all, I’m only 25.
I found myself losing my self-confidence. Rapidly. And it would oscillate between having to pretend as if I was in control, to retreating almost instantly to a head-down, back-hunched secretarial role.
[I feel I need to clarify something. I am in no way, shape or form trying to show down any secretarial position whatsoever — any position of work that allows for an honest wage is of the utmost respect as far as I am concerned. What I am commenting on is the dissonance between words that were being spoken and actions that were being carried out.]
Why this post?
The point of this post is not to point fingers at any specific person or place. It is to highlight a trend, and a problematic one at that. Having been on the ‘inside’ of the mental health services provision ‘industry’ I have seen some things I wish I had not seen. Of course it did not help that my employer was also my psychiatrist — a dual-relationship that a number of my friends have criticized me for having established in the first place, but one that I had established in the good faith (or naiveté as my friend put it) that my psychiatrist would know what my mental health concerns are and the resultant work environment would be one where my mental health needs would be respected, and the environment would be conducive to my stability and growth.
Needless to say I was terribly disappointed.
From the get-go, I was told one thing: to not tell people that I am under his care, and to not tell people that I am on medication. And upon my inquiring why that was the case (for I assumed it would be nothing short of an inspiration story to tell people that you could be a fully-functioning human being whilst being on treatment for your mental health), I was told that people do not understand and that’s just how society is.
I suppose I’m sick of the silence now.
And so this post is me doing what I have been trying to do since 2015: raise awareness.
Getting to the Point
I find it paradoxical that a center established for the well-being of the community re their mental health, does not cater for the mental health of its own employees.
The reason is simple: you need to question the motivation behind what you’re doing. It’s as Simon Sinek puts it: start with why.
And when your why is a little more than making money, regardless of how you try and wrap it up and put it out there, it begins to show. Again. I am not saying (for the sake of this article at least) that there is anything wrong with wanting to make money. If you are a professional who is good at his job, then you have a right to receive remuneration for your services that you have been honing for years through study, practice and experience.
What is wrong is trying to cut costs through Pharma-sponsored printing, simply because you feel they owe you. Isn’t that part of the problem? It’s highly likely that the professional does not indulge in wrongfully advantaging one pharmaceutical company over another, but it’s something that does not sit well with me. To read about this relationship is one thing, and to see it happening is altogether another.
The physician-pharma nexus is just one example of an overall dysfunctional healthcare system crippled by malpractices. There is no authority where patients can take their complaints. Against the background of lack of accountability in the system, the onus on physicians to conduct themselves ethically becomes paramount. Doctors have an enormous responsibility to exercise their powers with integrity. Jung (2002) writes “once you have sold your soul, it can be a hard item to retrieve”.
What is wrong is for you to be a mental health professional, and to hold absolutely no empathy or regard for other people. When a very close friend’s grandmother (who, perchance, had also been his client) passed away, his response, a little while later, was to inquire whether the family was feeling happy and relieved that she had passed on.
Yes. I understand practicality is important. But is it important enough to become callous towards all emotions?
And then, it is problematic when you treat someone who has been giving you 14 hours a day, 7 days a week, like absolute crap on the opening day, simply for being 10 minutes late. It’s one thing to be told that you’re late and that it shouldn’t happen again. It’s another thing to have to bear a grown man’s passive-aggression.
My version of the opening day at the center? A break-down in front of my boss. And once the dam broke, the waterworks flowed for at least 10 minutes before only quieting down.
Sounds exactly like a dream job…
But perhaps the biggest problem, still, is not recognizing or catering for the mental health needs of your own employees.
The work timings stretched from nine to nine; and that’s not nine to nine effectively, even though it’s nine to five on paper. It’s nine to nine on paper, and nine to ten effectively. When I pointed out that it was getting too much for me, I was simply told that I should aim to wrap up at nine sharp and leave. Or that we might figure out a way in which I could take off a couple of hours during the day.
I didn’t realize it then, but I find it ironic now, considering that the same person, a year back, wrote this prescription for my previous employer:
At that point, my work hours were nine to five…
But the final nail in the coffin was the surprising realization that a mental health professional of his standing could not understand how debilitating anxiety could be. When, after working non-stop, I took a sick leave for a day after a month of the opening, which is after almost five months of me working with him, and then extended it to two days, I was greeted with the following message:
[When I eventually did resign (which was perhaps later the same day, or the very next day) I brought this up, and he still stuck to his guns. “I wasn’t expecting an hour-long conversation,” he said. “You could just call and tell me you’re not coming.” “BUT I DIDN’T WANT TO TALK TO ANYONE!” I almost yelled out in response.]
This of course is only my story.
I am not here trying to indict someone in particular or to try and blame someone else for my resignation. That is NOT my intention, and never will be: it was an active choice that I made, and I will stick by it.
The point of me writing this post is perhaps more cathartis than anything else. When you feel let down by someone you deeply trust, you hold faith in, and with whom you have been emotionally vulnerable, it hurts. Like a fly-bat made out of bricks just came and hit your body’s anterior with swatting force.
Everyone keeps asking me why I left (what could only seem from the outset to be an inspirational story of me) pursuing my passion and doing my bit to help people and their mental health issues and finally working towards what I keep talking about. And I never have a decent answer. Even though I know.
Because it’s hard to reconcile. And it’s tough to come to terms with.
But even if I withdraw myself completely from the situation, and view it as someone who has been fighting for mental health awareness and has been advocating for the same since 2015, I find myself feeling sad, despondent, and helpless if this is the state of affairs in the field.
Because this is just one story. And within that story, this is just my narrative. There are hundreds of such stories out there. But we’ll never know. Because we are on the outside.
And so I’ll leave you with this one simple question:
The title of this article is Latin for, “First, do no harm.” The same principle also forms part of the Hippocratic Oath.