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Parallel Process

Finding Grace In Mental Health Care

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*Note: As a short introduction to this post, I have worked full-time or part-time in mental health care for the last 6 years, 4 of which spent working at an inpatient psychiatric facility. Enjoy. 

I recently worked with a new staff member who related to me her frustration with all the other staff who “don’t care anymore.” I listened as she listed their emotional crimes, their callousness, their dark humor, their lack of patience. Like most of us who witness behavior we dislike, she was convincing herself that she was better than the others – that she’d never be like them. It was a familiar thought. Truth be told, I felt the same things when I started 4 years ago, including the heroic naivete to assume that all my days spent working at the psych hospital would be good ones, patient ones, gentle ones. I would show all the weary floor staff what real patient care looked like. I’d be awesome and blameless. Looking back, it’s not the worst ambition I’ve ever had.

But listening to her, I just wanted to tell her that she didn’t have the right to judge people she didn’t know on work she didn’t know how to do yet. Reeling in my hypocritical thoughts, I just nodded my head and listened and wondered how to respond with something more than defensiveness and ego. Was it worth my time to warn her of the inevitability of a bad day? Should I defend the people she was criticizing (most of whom are dear friends)? I could have gotten away with telling her she didn’t have a clue what she was talking about because honestly, she doesn’t. And for now, that’s ok.

She asked me what I thought so I thought about it for a minute and responded by asking her to find grace for what she didn’t understand. And I asked her to remember to find grace for herself when she fails – because she will. She’ll be triggered. She’ll get tired. She’ll lose patience. I told her that if she sticks around she’ll hear things, see things, feel things that will haunt her long after she’s clocked out. She’ll grapple with some bad habits. She’ll probably start taking hotter showers. If she’s smart, she’ll end up in counseling.

I saw any respect she had for me drain from her eyes as I said all this but I kept talking because the point I was trying to make is that she would gain a few things she doesn’t yet know she’ll need. She’ll gain insight. She’ll gain empathy. She’ll grow. She’ll find she’s just as human as the rest of us.

One day, not too long into the journey, the realization will set in that sometimes we’re all weak, that we all carry a struggle regardless of which side of the staff/patient barrier we find ourselves. And when the gravity of our shared imperfection settles in her heart, she’ll need people to process that with. She’ll need them to tell her that tomorrow will be a better day and we’ve all been there. She’ll need them to get a beer with her after a long shift. She’ll need that grace I asked her to find because it is in that grace and acceptance of our faults that makes us helpful to begin with.

Our patients need humans helping them deal with their human struggles. They need honest people with good boundaries and tough skin. They need us to grow past our naive belief that we can fix everything if we just care enough because they don’t really care what we started out believing – they care that we can meet them where they are and provide care without judgement. And I for one, have never met anyone who could care without judgement until they’d stopped judging themselves for the ordinary, human failures we all experience. It is a parallel process.

Four years later, I’ve failed a lot and I’m pretty sure I’m a better tech because of it. But I am absolutely certain that I’m a better person because of it. I can hope for nothing better for her than that.

Today is World Mental Health Day. Celebrate by accepting your humanity. We’ll always be learning better ways to deal and this search for grace is an endless one so be gentle with yourself.