I don’t think that anyone can give you a definitive yes or no answer.
On one hand, you have a mental illness. That does not define who you are, it is just something you happen to have. Mental illness is on a continuum. Some days it will have the better of you [or worse] and some days you will have the better.
On those days that you are at optimum mental health and physical health of course, you could very well help others that have a mental illness. This can be as a paid helper or as a volunteer or perhaps a peer support worker.
The problem with a definitive answer of “yes, of course you can!” is it is based on generalities and anecdotal evidence.
I’ve worked in mental health as a Registered Nurse for close to 40 years and am currently working in a specialized residential mental facility in a psychosocial rehabilitation program.
Our residents have chronic mental illnesses. Many of them lead lonely, solitary lives. If we can, we try to match them with a peer support worker. A peer support worker is someone who has a mental illness and has taken some training to be able to help others with mental illness. They aren’t staff of the facility, but do get paid for their time from another community agency. They are not expected to act as councillors. They are there to be a friend and colleague, somebody who has been through the system themselves. Sometimes all we need is someone to talk to that is not necessarily part of the system.
Some of our past residents have gone on to become effective peer support workers.
It’s the definition of the word ‘help’ that can get some peer support workers into troubled areas. It can be too easy to want to share the negative aspect of one’s mental illness with others, perhaps as a form of self-validation. This is counter-therapeutic for everyone involved.
While I am happy to say that many geographical regions are becoming progressive in developing community resources to help mentally ill individuals lead productive, effective lives, this isn’t always the norm. There could be a resistance from the community’s leaders to acknowledge that mental illness exists or perhaps very really budgetary concerns. There is still a very unhealthy stigma out there when it comes to mental illness.
‘Helping’ can also fall under the category of seeking employment in the mental health field. Over the years, I have known many of my fellow workers who have had a mental health problem of one sort or another. We aren’t immune to mental illness.
I know of one fellow who had been a patient of mine and had gone on to take a mentalhealth worker educational program. I hear that he did quite well at it. However, when he graduated and was applying for jobs in the system that he had been a patient, he was flatly turned down.
I found this to be rather disturbing. Here was a fellow that fought his personal demons and stepped out of his comfort zone. The system that cared for him as a patient, wouldn’t give him the opportunity to help others. They aren’t walking their talk in this case.
I know that I made reference earlier to anecdotal examples and I recognize that this is one of them. To me there is an important message though. I think it behooves one to ascertain whether there are actually job opportunities waiting for someone at the end of an educational program.
Many communities are becoming more progressive in their views of mental illness and are providing opportunities. It is not a given though and I believe that one needs to self-advocate.
Having a mental illness shouldn’t limit you in trying to make someone else’s life a little brighter. Volunteering has been a proven method of improving our own mental health. When we help somebody else, we in turn benefit.
I hope that you work past any barriers out there, be they personal or systematic. We can use more people that are willing to help others.
Thanks for your question!
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Rae A. Stonehouse is an author, speaker, and self-publishing consultant dedicated to helping others embrace constant improvement and overcome challenges. With over 40 years of experience as a Registered Nurse in psychiatry and mental health, Rae brings a wealth of knowledge and passion for self-development to his writing and presentations.
As a 25+ year member of Toastmasters International, Rae has systematically built his communication abilities and self-confidence to share his insights as an author and speaker. His self-help books and personal development presentations aim to have conversational one-on-one connections with readers and audiences.
Rae is known for his wry sense of humor and sage advice delivered in a relatable coaching style. After four decades as a nurse, Rae has rewired rather than retired, actively writing and pursuing public speaking. He strives to share lessons learned to help others achieve personal and professional growth.