Unhealthy professionals

Should mental health professionals be 100% healthy? Should they have had a personal experience of mental illness? Should they have 'sorted themselves out before they try to help others? What does Christianity have to say about this? 

A friend of mine who is a GP told me of his counsellor who, before she can see any clients, has to have five cigarettes stat! Then another five at break, then another five for lunch... She seems to exude stress and unhealthy living and, naturally [?], he wondered about her ability counsel. Another friend of mine told me of a surgeon who recently performed a minor operation on him but was so obese that he had to sit on a stool to do it and looked about to die. But his skill with the knife was fine!

I have written elsewhere about the phoenomenon of the wounded healer - the person who seems to be able to heal others but cannot heal themselves - yet surely there should be some correlation to the advice you are giving and your own ability to put it into practice. It occurede to me that there are three types of 'wounded people' who offer help and healing. A couple of them are OK, but I have concerns about the third:

  • the person with a personal story of mental illness who has now come oout the far side and has much to share. Related to this is the person who, though they may never have been ill as such, has still had to work to develop personally and to pursue discipleship. Hopefully this is the mark of every Christian
  • the person who continues to struggle yet has done all they can to grow. i am thinking of a friend of mine who is a minister who has to battle her introvert nature every time she gets into the pulpit to preach. But God has called her there - and she is a brave lady made of iron with much to share.
  • the person who doesn't seem aware of their issues yet tries to help others none the less. Ironically they often chose to offer help in the very area where they seem most blind.
Jesus teaches about this type of person in the exchange with the Pharisees in Matthew 7:1-5: "Do not judge, or you too will be judged. For in the same way you judge others, you will be judged, and with the measure you use, it will be measured to you. "Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your brother's eye and pay no attention to the plank in your own eye? How can you say to your brother, 'Let me take the speck out of your eye,' when all the time there is a plank in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the plank out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to remove the speck from your brother's eye.

We can think of these 'specks or planks' as Blind Spots - places where we are unaware of our ability not to see. This was recently covered at my church by Paul Scanlon and he offered some of the points below and I have added a couple myself.

  • The speck of dust and the plank are made of the same material. Such people offer advice in the same area they are blind in - and sadly probably most unqualified to help in.
  • This may be because of an unconscious denial of their weakness which they project onto others - meaning they have a heightened ability to see this problem in others and a complete inability to see it in themselves. If they are using this defensive projection, they will be especially offended when you try to point out their plank.
  • They may have some useful stuff to offer, maybe even some professional training - but unfortunately their life is shouting far louder than any words.
  • The life of the person doesn't devalue the message, but it may mean people cannot 'hear' what they have to say.

So how do we change? 

Blind spots are got round by changing position or taking a different perspective. If you want to see through the blind spots when driving your car yoou have to move your head or ask the passenger. Other people are invaluable in helping us with our blind spots, which is one reason why professionals should always have supervision. Sadly, the Pharisees didn't think they were blind but rather claimed to see [John 9v41] and so they didn't change.

Is personal reflection and meditation enough? Probably not, I would argue. The Holy Spirit can be a 'second person' and give the perspective of God. But just reflecting on myself won't give me any additional information about areas in which by definition I am blind to. We need the comments of others. But these need to be delivered in a loving way and not by those with planks - who are sadly too eager to offer them. The best way is one person with a speck gently enquiring of another person with a speck if they could offer them any suggestions. Never ask a plank - and if you have a plank, then find a gentle speck and be nice to them!

We don't need to be perfectly healthy in order to offer help. But we do need to admit we are still on a journey and may be blind in some areas.

Rob Waller, 24/07/2008
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