Be confused, it’s where you begin to learn new things. Be broken, it’s where you begin to heal. Be frustrated, it’s where you start to make more authentic decisions. Be sad, because if we are brave enough we can hear our heart’s wisdom through it. Be whatever you are right now. No more hiding. You are worthy, always. - S.C. Lourie
In the past 12 months in2gr8mentalhealth has been through a very powerful journey, leading up to our re-launch on the 14th September 2020. When things are built from the heart (as Natalie often says), it is unavoidable for us to also go through our own journey of self-development and acceptance of our own vulnerability, in the most tender and beautiful ways.
Those who know me will know why I am writing this piece. I have said the words that will follow out loud only a handful of times… mainly in my own therapy, as well as through conversations with trusted friends, family and colleagues. But, sometimes, putting things down on paper is much more powerful and…scary! Like I often say, we are all going through a journey (or multiple journeys) and sometimes we surprise ourselves in what we are able to do… other times, we need to be kind and patiently wait until the time is right.
The time is now right, for me… So here it is… in black and white. I was emotionally abused by my clinical psychology supervisor. For a whole year, I was subject to very significant harmful experiences ranging from what could be seen as more subtle gaslighting to more obvious emotional abuse in and out of the workplace. Day in and day out. In plain sight.
Why am I writing this out there to be visible to the world? Because abuse is too often silenced and silence kills. Also, especially now, in my new role as Director of in2gr8mentalhealth, silence on these issues is against everything I stand for. So this time, I refuse to be silent. Because it is important to call abuse for what it is because not using the word creates its own damage too for those going through these experiences.
I am also writing this in the hope that someone out there will read this article and realise that they are not alone. Unfortunately, that's the hardest part of these experiences. Abuse often gets silenced and hidden by systems. In my experience, reporting abuse in professional systems can be near impossible, due to the re-traumatisation that often follows such reports.
Emotional abuse has its own extra layers of difficulty as it is often very difficult to prove, so it can easily be dismissed, especially in professional environments where people, in my experience, struggle to believe that it would be at all possible for a clinical psychologist to abuse another clinical psychologist. There is no hard evidence with emotional abuse, apart from your word and, sometimes, the words of some amazing colleagues who decide to stand up to it. But even that is not enough at times. It is not enough because the "abusers" are often people in a position of power (like in my case, a clinical supervisor).
When this was all happening for me, it was incredibly difficult to make sense of the whole experience and know where to report what was happening. Somewhere along the lines I found the strength to report what was going on through all the official channels I could possibly think about at that point. There aren't many and, sadly, when I found the strength to say something, the responses ranged (apart from a few exceptions) from not believing me at all, not defining what had happened as abuse and/or more active attempts to pathologise me and attribute my distress to past experiences I had had in my life.
I do have lived experience of mental health difficulties. I don't hide this. It's part of my work at in2gr8mentalhealth. These experiences have made me who I am as a person. I've had my own therapy and I am not ashamed of my past. We all have a past. Some more painful than others. That is what makes us all human. Whether you are a mental health professional or not, your professional training does not make you immune to the struggles life can bring.
However, what the system failed to see, in my experience, was that, though there were distressing experiences in my past, I was also being subject to a new trauma - the persistent emotional abuse by the very person who was supposed to provide a safe and containing supervisory space for me to explore my role as a clinical psychologist. What is incredibly sad about this whole story is that the people that caused the most harm and re-traumatisation after I reported what was happening were clinical psychologists.
I felt abandoned by my own professional group to the point that I really considered leaving the profession. There was a sense that it was somehow my responsibility to do something and that "I should have been able to protect myself". Anyone who knows anything about trauma will know that this is the bulk of the problem when we talk about abuse. People are made to feel responsible for speaking up, for doing something, for protecting themselves. It is impossible for one human to do it all and that's where the system crushes you - it does not want to know so it becomes unsafe to speak up.
It is puzzling how little we understand about trauma / abuse when it happens in our own professional environments. The question I was often left with was what / who are we trying to protect in not speaking up about abuse?
I've come through the other side of this situation and, as painful as it was, I can now say that I have learnt so much through this experience that I now treasure and value in my personal and professional life. However, it saddens and angers me that my own profession and the professional systems around me have failed me so spectacularly. It saddens me that there is very little that can be done to report and prevent these experiences from happening again. The one thing that I feel able to do now is to speak up. Not everyone will be at that stage and it is important to highlight that speaking up will not always feel safe for people.
I am speaking up because I nearly lost my career and my life because of this situation and the reactions that followed. The only reason I was able to come out the other side was because of a handful of wonderful people and a wonderful therapist who literally held my hand through it all. The person in question is no longer in my life and I am now surrounded by some brilliant people, clinical psychologists and not.
So I guess the message is also that it is not all bad. But it is bad enough that people risk their lives (some have lost their lives) and this is why we need to speak about abuse if we are to ever start changing anything. Professional bodies must do more to protect colleagues, as well as clients, and realise that we are all people and abuse, unfortunately, still happens between people, regardless of their professional training.
We will continue to do our bit at in2gr8mentalhealth. We will continue to speak up for those who can't, yet, in the hope that things will continue to shift in helpful ways and that we will get to a future where people feel safer to be who they are, regardless of their professional role, regardless of their history, regardless of their status.
Keep an eye out for our upcoming "in conversations with series" on our YouTube channel. Subscribe to hear stories from some wonderful mental health professionals who decided to share their own narratives of lived experience of mental health problems as professionals. Their experiences are varied, their speaking is brave and we do it to help remind the systems we live and work in that we are all human.