Just as medical students often seem to ‘develop’ symptoms of possible illness during their first year or so of study, psychology students may look at detailed descriptions of mental illness and start to weigh their own sanity against what they are learning. This does not actually mean that they truly have a mental illness any more than the medical student is likely to be suffering from cancer or a brain defect. All it means is that the student, having been exposed to in depth information, has begun to explore his or her psyche and wonder if it is ‘normal’ when measured against that of other people.
To truly be able to help another person a psychologist needs more than knowledge gained from course-work and books; they need experience. This experience need not be a mental illness, in fact, if it was, there could be all kinds of problems as a result.
The experience referred to comes from looking within oneself as well as observing others. Empathy is not simply an instinct as for some it is a learned skill that can help them to help other people.
In order to gain empathy a psychology student needs to ‘imagine’ what it may be like to be in another person’s shoes because if he or she wants to help a patient, with a mental health problem, a certain amount of empathy is called for. Such empathy should not be all-consuming. The student need not entirely enter the troubled person’s world and be swept up in it. They have to learn how to hold a balance between keeping their own sanity and recognizing a problem with someone else’s. Knowing where a patient stops and a psychologist or counselor, begins regarding self is crucial in a client/patient relationship.
Students, who are to be the psychologists of the future, are learning about how to empathise with their patients and understand them so that they can help them. They may go through times when they question their own mental health when faced with so many books containing the symptoms of mental imbalance. However, in most cases, this is as far as the connection goes. Studying psychology cannot make people mentally ill, and nor can it throw students into mental decline. In rare cases knowledge gained might highlight symptoms of an illness that a student already has, but it cannot be the cause of a psychological disturbance..