The High Cost of Stigma: Why Helping Professionals Don’t Seek Help

This September, Americans were hit with disturbing news. Two well-known helping professionals - Gregory Ells, the director of counseling and psychological services at Penn State and Jarrid Wilson, a pastor at Harvest church - each committed suicide, leaving their families and our country grieved and confused and asking why.

How did these men who were committed to helping others, who had the tools to manage their mental health, reach the point where suicide felt like their only option?

Photo by Noah Silliman on Unsplash
Even within the mental health community, I had discussions with peers. Why do we, as
 helping professionals, encourage our clients to seek help, counseling, and medication, but struggle to do the same? We know that if we don't seek help, we are left feeling isolated or anxious and become even more vulnerable to depression, secondary traumatic stress, or suicidality. But if we do seek help, It is often laced with fear. What if someone finds out? How will this negatively impact me and my career?

As someone who has wrestled the shame of being a mental health professional while struggling with my own mental health issues, I understand why others don't seek help. There are many reasons we don't reach out, but stigma is a significant one. It is pervasive and manifests in different ways. Here are three categories of stigma that I believe keep the helpers from seeking help.

1. Societal stigma. There is still significant stigma around mental health disorders in our country. It’s something that many groups have difficulty talking about (especially in faith communities), but even in professional settings, it’s not something that is openly discussed. I’ve always been open with my supervisors about my bipolar disorder, but often behind closed doors. Any discussion of mental health issues with my coworkers is often done quietly and in whispers, if at all. We worry that others may perceive us as unable to do our jobs. We don't want our friends, our families or our communities to know because the comments or responses aren't always supportive.

We have to ask ourselves as a society: when a peer discloses a serious mental health issue, is our first thought one of appreciation and how can we can help?

Or do we wonder if it would impact their ability to function at work, parent their children and help others effectively?

Stigma often keeps helping professionals silent about their struggles, which is tragic since we could help others more effectively if they felt comfortable enough to share their issues upfront, instead of after things have started to deteriorate or fall apart.

I recently stumbled across the story of a clinical psychologist who shared on social media that he had sought treatment for an addiction to clonazepam. Instead of embracing his honesty and authenticity (something we claim to value as a culture), people’s responses focused more on his “moral failures, weakness, and inability to follow his own advice due to seeking treatment” (Casting Stones at Jordan Peterson for Seeking Treatment," 2019).

If we believe as a culture that mental health and addiction are truly brain diseases, not moral or emotional weaknesses, then why do we talk about our mental health diagnoses behind closed doors, while discussing our back problems, migraines or other medical issues in the break room? When the popular culture around us is cruel or uneducated about mental health or substance use, it can be terrifying to disclose your struggles, especially when mental health professionals are supposed to have it all figured out.

2. Perceived stigma among professionals. In small communities, it can be especially challenging to find a helping professional you haven’t worked with. In my county, we have two psychiatrists. My husband (also a clinical social worker) has worked with both of them in a professional capacity so they know of me. In the nearest county, I have worked with almost every psychiatrist as a professional in some capacity, making finding one to manage my medication difficult.

But aren't they bound by confidentiality? Yes, but it is still awkward to discuss my symptoms and talk about the days where I can’t get out of bed due to depression, knowing they might be referring clients to me or staffing a case in the future (this has happened to me several times). It’s mortifying to admit that you are struggling when so often, our clients (and even some helping professionals) expect us to have it all together.

When I pregnant with my first child, I had to decrease my medications significantly (since they could cause birth defects) and I was a mess. My psychiatrist and I developed a plan in case I needed to be psychiatrically hospitalized. The problem was I worked at the only psych hospital in my county and was left with a difficult choice. Find a hospital 200 miles away or risk weeping and walking around in my pajamas in front of my co-workers? Luckily, I didn't end up hospitalized, but the fear about it hung over me throughout my pregnancy. What if something happened and my coworkers no longer respected my abilities?

Even in larger communities, you still run the risk of coming into contact with someone you’ve worked with, especially the longer you are in the field. I can’t imagine the stigma for well-known pastors, counselors and social workers who seek counseling. The reality is most helping professionals are very supportive of their peers seeking treatment, but when the negative societal stigma against professionals seeking treatment is so pervasive, it's easy to assume or worry that those around us, including other helping professionals, will perceive us negatively as well.

3. Internalized stigma. I’ve found that when I’m struggling, I am often doing everything I need to! Exercising, seeking support from my friends, examining my unhealthy thought patterns. It’s often a chemical issue, but over the years, I've still kept my struggles to myself because deep down, I worry that my symptoms are the result of not doing enough. It is easy to fall into the trap of “What am I doing wrong?” and internalize the common view that mental health issues are the result of some sort of moral failing or weakness.

Over the years, I have learned great things from counselors, but it’s a difficult process to go through and there is always that whisper in the back of my mind, “I know all this, what’s wrong with me? I should be better at managing my symptoms” or “What if someone finds out?  Will people view me as ‘inept’? If I’m struggling, maybe I shouldn’t be counseling others.” Even when we know that our symptoms are simply the result of a wonky brain issue that can be resolved with some support and a medication change, it can be embarrassing to seek help. 

Dr. Jonathan Stea made an excellent point in his article about the psychologist who sought treatment. He wrote that we need to continue working to dispel the myth that “mental health professionals who seek treatment are incapable of imparting clinical wisdom” ("Casting Stones at Jordan Peterson for Seeking Treatment," 2019).

I spent many years (and a lot of student loans) learning how to help others. Just because I struggle with mental health issues does not mean that I can’t still draw upon that information and share it and empathize with others.

So, until we shift our country’s perceptions about mental health and substance use, I fear we will continue to see headlines about helping professionals committing suicide. I can't speak to what Gregory Ells and Jarrid Wilson were dealing with, or whether or not they sought treatment. But I do know that I've counseled pastors, social workers, and counselors over the years, and they often voice a similar fear - that they will be viewed negatively for seeking treatment as a result of stigma. 

I also don’t want to dismiss the progress that has been made. There is more dialogue about mental health, first responders and PTSD,  and the impact of mental health in faith communities, but until we accept that helping professionals may need support as much as the clients they serve, our society’s burden bearers are still at risk.


Casting Stones at Jordan Peterson for Seeking Treatment. (2019, October 22). Retrieved from https:/www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/writing-integrity/201910/casting-stones-jordan-peterson-seeking-treatment

No comments