My mental health story came to a head about five years ago. In the span of four years, I had graduated from graduate school with my doctorate in physical therapy, gotten married, moved to the Great Lakes Bay Region, had two kids, and was trying to figure out how to be an adult, meet people in my new community, and figure out who I was. I had a history of putting too much pressure on myself, and this time in my life was no different. When I felt overwhelmed, I tended to try to bring more things under my control, be it the foods I was choosing to eat, running a tight schedule, or focusing hard on academic achievements. But with graduation unmooring me from the academic focus, and kids taking a large amount of control out of my life, I felt like I couldn’t get a grip.
I had gone to counseling a couple of times before. I had some sessions in high school, when my parents recognized that I was putting too much pressure on myself. I also went to counseling in grad school to learn strategies on how to balance my feeling of not being good enough, feeling overwhelmed by the information, and other stressors.
When our youngest was about five months old, I reached out to my employer to seek support through our Employee Assistance Plan. Being a young clinician and parent can be very overwhelming and stressful. I was hesitant to take the hour away from my kids and husband to complete the sessions, but with the encouragement of my husband, and my employer, I prioritized those visits. Being able to talk about my stressors to a third party that I wasn’t worried about annoying with my problems was very helpful. I have since encouraged other people both in and outside of my organization to seek help from EAP programs if they are available.
However, it still wasn’t enough. I recall the day that I decided to pursue additional mental health treatment crystal clear. It was a couple of years later and I had been listening to a mental health-focused podcast one morning where a guest was describing her experience of anxiety and having a trusted friend say “I think you are having a medical emergency.” While my anxiety has not gotten to an emergent state, hearing it phrased that way made something in my healthcare-focused brain click. I remember sitting in the parking lot of work, bawling my eyes out on the phone with my husband telling him that I think I needed to look into medication. Thankfully, he was very supportive.
I reached out to my primary care provider that day, and was able to get an appointment and started taking an SSRI shortly after. It has been life changing. I am able to use that, as well as skills learned in my counseling sessions over the years to manage my anxiety.
The kids are older now and I’ve spoken openly to them that Mommy’s brain needs some extra help, just like someone with diabetes needs insulin. I’m open with my co-workers and empathic with my patients when their cases are impacted by mental health. There are still days when the anxiety is more intense. At home we call those a “bad brain day” and it’s a signal that I might need some extra rest, or may be a little curt in my responses. It’s also a signal that I need to check in to be sure I’m caring for myself through exercise, relaxation, hydration, and food choices.
As someone who is a working physical therapist, I think it’s important to be open about my mental health. Historically, there is a stigma in health care regarding mental health. I can see the progress that has been made over my 12 years working, but health care providers tend to pour a lot of ourselves into our patients. I’m pleased to see more and more healthcare employers offering EAPs, and I hope that managers and other leaders are supportive of their staff utilizing those resources. I also think it’s important to share my story so the community knows that people can manage mental health conditions while providing excellent care to their patients.
– Jacqueline Kareus, PT, DPT, CIMT
Team Lead – Mary Free Bed at Covenant Mackinaw