The Wounded Healer and Veteran Mental Health

We could say, without too much exaggeration, that a good half of every treatment that probes at all deeply consists in the doctor’s examining himself, for only what he can put right in himself can he hope to put right in the patient-Carl Jung

Early in my training as a clinical mental health counselor, I was having a conversation with a highly respected, and very insightful, colleague. She’s a substance abuse counselor, and has significant experience in not only the substance abuse concerns of veterans, but of trauma, pain, and everything else that goes along with it. She looked at me, and said, “You’re Jung’s Wounded Healer!” At the time, not knowing what she was talking about, I shrugged and mumbled, “I guess.” Now, with greater understanding, I see that she was right.

Carl Jung was one of the giants in the very beginning of the mental health profession, a contemporary of Freud. He is well known for his concepts of Archetypes, in that each of us has a sort of “pattern” that we follow that is in our subconscious. One of the less well-known archetypes that he described was the Wounded Healer, patterned after Chiron the Centaur in Greek Mythology. Chiron was was wounded by Hercules, and although he does not die, he becomes one of the greatest healers in ancient Greece as a result of his wound.

Jung saw the pattern of wounded healer in his work as a Psychiatrist. He looked at his fellow medical professionals who were delving into the world of psychoanalysis, and noted that many of them had experienced the same challenges that they were looking to help their clients with. He noted that many of the most effective were those who had overcome their own wounds; the least effective were those who had not healed from their wounds, but tried to treat others anyway. I found an excellent article that describes Jung and the Wounded Healer, and the origins of the concept, which you can read here.

So that’s what it is. Why now? Why talk about Jung’s Wounded Healer on this blog? A couple of recent events brought it to mind.

Recently, another highly respected colleague and mentor shared an article that appeared in the New York Times, titled, “A Suicide Therapist’s Secret Past.” In this article, suicide expert (and fellow Colorado native) Stacy Freedenthal describes her struggles with the very challenge that she is helping others overcome: suicide. She describes, in painful personal detail, her own suicide attempt during her graduate studies. She mentions in the article that this is something that she has not revealed before, and recognizes that this is her own contribution to the stigma around mental health. How can we, as mental health professionals, expect others to reveal to us their deepest secrets and fears, while we keep ours to ourselves? Stacy is a recognized expert in the field, and writes on her own blog Speaking of Suicide, and still kept this secret to herself. Until now.

A few days before this, on a trip to the bookstore (those things do exist) I picked up a copy of Night Falls Fast: Understanding Suicide  by Kay Redfield Jamison. Again, in the opening pages of the book, Jamison details her struggles with suicide and bipolar disorder, while also being a highly recognized clinical mental health expert. An author of several books, professor, and recognized expert on suicide, she is very clear about her own struggles with mental health.

“So where are you going with this,” I hear you thinking. “What are you trying to say?”

I’m not about to reveal my own struggles with suicide attempts. I’ve never gotten to that point in my life, and hope to never do so. I’ve experienced it too much as a family member and friend, and have taught the warning signs in others so frequently that I am able to recognize, and react to, those warning signs in myself.

What I am going to do, however, is what Stacy Freedenthal did, and reveal my own struggles with mental health challenges in an attempt to be as transparent as possible. I often tell the veterans I work with, just as the best Preacher is a former sinner, and the best drug counselor is a former addict, those of us who have struggled with the challenges that we help others can be effective. Hence, Jung’s Wounded Healer.

This isn’t going to be a bombshell for those of you who are long time readers, but I have PTSD. I’ll be sitting in church, or driving down the highway, and all of a sudden a memory slams into my mind. Very specific, not always traumatic, but always surprising. Random thoughts that are not connected anywhere in the present. I have control over my hypervigilance, I manage my thoughts and behaviors. It’s under control, but it’s always there. I have two or three “PTSD moments” throughout the year, which is great, and is a place that we can all get to.

I’ve also been diagnosed with Major Depressive Disorder. This, in many ways, is more challenging than PTSD. It’s always kind of been there, I think, through my teenage years and leading up to deployments, but my time overseas and the PTSD certainly amplified it. The Black Dog of the Veteran Emotion? Been there. The Pandora’s Box of the Veteran Mind? One of the reasons I have the ability to write so clearly about it is because I’ve lived it.

This isn’t a bandwagon thing, jumping on to be able to reveal my mental health experiences like Freedenthal and Jamison. This is an attempt to let other veterans struggling with this kind of stuff to know: you’re not alone. I sometimes talk about this to the veterans I work with. Not in this level of detail, but I tell them: I can’t do the work that I do without having someone to talk to. I have a therapist that I see, sometimes more often, sometimes less. I can’t sit with the work that I do, and contain the pain of my brothers and sisters, without having to release it through my own therapy work. My faith also sustains me, because without the strength of God I don’t think I would be able to do what I do.

The thing about being a wounded healer: we need to make sure that we heal from our own wounds before we attempt to heal others. We can’t hope to stop the bleeding in someone else if we’re bleeding all over them as well. Do I have a handle on my PTSD and depression? Absolutely. Sometimes it creeps in, and hits me when I don’t expect it. Sometimes the random thought pops up like an unwanted shadow. I know how to handle it, though, and where to go when it does.

Healing is possible.

The Head Space and Timing Blog is supported by the Colorado Veterans Health and Wellness Agency, a 501(c)3 Nonprofit in Colorado Springs, Colorado. The goal of the CVHWA is to provide military culturally competent mental health counseling to veterans and their spouses, regardless of characterization of discharge, time of service, or era of service. Our vision is to assist veterans to identify and remove barriers to their mental, physical, emotional, and behavioral wellness. For questions or inquiries, contact us!

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2 thoughts on “The Wounded Healer and Veteran Mental Health

  1. Duane, you have once again re-emphasized what peer support is all about, as I’m learning more and more on daily basis in my work with Military Veteran Peer Network (Texas state only)! This article has hit the proverbial nail on its head, my friend. Thank you for your words to make us think and understand.

    1. Bel, thank you for your support! There is an element of benefit to peer support, but it’s also necessary for those providing support have some basic understanding of veteran mental health. More damage can be done by untrained peers than benefit, sometimes. Like all things in life, balance is key.

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