Speaking Out About Mental Health Treatment: From A Client’s Point of View


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Shirley J. Davis

I have been in therapy for almost three decades trying to recover from a severe mental disability known as Dissociative Identity Disorder (DID). I have written many articles and blog posts about DID, but that is not the focus of this piece. Instead, I would like to write about my many and varied experiences in dealing with people who work as mental health professionals. The purpose of me relating this long narrative is to help raise awareness of the plight of people like myself.

Finding someone with any kind of training with dealing with Dissociative Identity Disorder is very difficult in the United States, especially if you live in rural, downstate Illinois. I was extremely fortunate to be referred to a fantastic Psychologist who, although having no real understanding of the disorder, was willing to work with me and learn as she went along. Recovery from something as severe as DID is an arduous, bitter and difficult work both for the client and therapist. It took many years and a lot of patience to help me unlearn and learn the habits and coping skills that had kept me prisoner and set me free. However, my experience with this wonderfully empathetic woman ended abruptly when the clinic she was working for suddenly cut off any contact I could have with her after I was forced to take bankruptcy. I tried to get them to allow me to pay them what I owed in installments, but instead they literally met me at the door one afternoon before an appointment and told me I could not even say goodbye to my Psychologist. I was very wounded by the loss of this vital person in my life. I have described it as having my umbilical cord cut too soon and improperly, as I felt like I was bleeding to death. I had been seeing her for nine years and just had begun to see some light at the end of my therapy tunnel. Suddenly I found myself alone and facing my past and my future without her help. It nearly cost me my life.

Soon after losing my first therapist, I began seeing a Psychologist at a local county mental health clinic. He was a very nice man who seemed very interested in helping me. I became aware early on that he had some baggage of his own, but I didn’t consider that a problem. After I had been seeing him for two years, and making some progress, I had a major stroke and ended up recovering in a nursing home. One afternoon, he came to see me and upon seeing how sick I was he quietly told me, “I totally understand if you want to kill yourself.” I was stunned, and cut off all communication with him. He is still employed as the head of place today.

For a year or so I floundered around from person to person who had MSW credentials but either they hadn’t the training to help me or they would leave the area.

I then thought I might try another Psychologist. On my first appointment with the man, I asked him if he was planning on moving away or retiring because I needed stability. He laughed and assured me he had been working for the clinic he was in for over thirty years and had no plans to move on. Two weeks later, he greeted me with the news that he was moving to another state to take a position at a university. It occurred to me that he must have been looking for a new position at the very moment he told me he was going no where.

During this entire time, I had seen at least four Psychiatrists trying to get help dealing with the intense depression and anxiety that accompanied dealing with Dissociative Identity Disorder. Most told me point blank they did not believe in my diagnosis. They insisted tagging on diagnosis after diagnosis that I did not have, never trying to contact my former or current therapists for their opinions. It was my observation that to do so would have felt like self-betrayal to them. Only their diagnosis and their medication recommendations could be right, they could not possibly be wrong. If I tried to refuse a drug, I was told un-categorically that to do so would mean they would refuse to treat me and this would mark me as an uncooperative patient. In all, I have seen ten different Psychiatrists in twenty-seven years. I haven’t jumped from one to the other by choice. Because I live in rural America it is very difficult to find a Psychiatrist who will relocate here and remain for more than a short time, especially ones that accept Medicaid and Medicare.

Then there has been my treatment by inpatient facilities. I’m sure my descriptions of these experiences are not unique, I wish they were.

I was placed inpatient at a hospital in a nearby city. From the beginning, they showed a great dislike for me. I was told that because I had a diagnosis of Borderline Personality Disorder I was considered highly manipulative and not to be trusted. I was locked out of my room during the day because they said I didn’t need to remain in there all day. I was the only person the ward who was thus treated. I became angry and belligerent. Who wouldn’t under such circumstances? I had to trick my way out of there by lying. I sold my soul by admitting to them that I agreed with what they believed about me was true.

In 2005, I was placed in an inpatient psychiatric ward where I remained for seven years. When I first arrived, I was dissociated and it was only after two years that I became aware of where I was. When I awoke, I was taken to the social services office and told that they didn’t believe in Dissociative Identity Disorder and that I was not to ever speak about my diagnosis with anyone while I lived there. They meant staff, other residents, anyone, including my assigned therapist. I was left isolated and alone with no one to help me deal with the flashbacks, memories, and dissociation.

Finally, after six years of loneliness and despair, I was assigned a new therapist who broke the taboo and helped me to begin healing again. She helped me to not only begin my healing journey once more, but also to freedom. I reentered the community once again and have been making good progress since. Had she not been willing to sneak around behind her boss’ back, I would still be lingering in that facility.

Since leaving that inpatient facility, I have been reunited with my first therapist once again. It was joyful reunion, and I continued to see her for three years until her retirement in September of last year. I made terrific progress with her and am doing fantastic now.  Before she retired, I told her of all my misadventures in the mental health field, and she helped me to get in touch with a fantastic Psychiatrist whom I currently see. Not only does he believe in Dissociative Identity Disorder, he listens to me and does not push medications I do not need.

There are only three basic things that need to be changed in the mental health profession to keep things like what happened to me from occurring.

One, Psychiatrists need to be humble and to be able to admit to themselves and their clients that, despite their education, they do not know it all. They must admit to themselves that there is more than what they understand in some diagnoses and if they truly want to help their clients, they should listen more and prescribe less.

Two, all professionals in the mental health field need to be more empathetic. I’m not saying they should allow their clients to rule the roost, only that they should treat them as they themselves would like to be treated with respect and dignity. That’s what all humans crave from others, especially people whom they have given such power over their lives.

Three, mental health professionals need to be honest with themselves and their clients. If you don’t know something, say so. Don’t be worried that someone will think less of you because you admit to them that your knowledge base is lacking. That just shows you are human, and that you are mature.

It is my sincere hope that people will read this article and the others I have written and see them as what they are meant to be, helpful not critical. Yes, I’ve had some bad experiences with mental health professionals, but those experiences did not have to happen. I admit that my behavior has not always been above board, but a license to practice does not make one a god either. Please, if you are mental health professional, listen to the heart behind the words. We can work together, clients and professionals, to improve treatment and care for all people who go looking for help because of a mental health condition.