Defying the Odds: People with Mental Health Disorders Who Choose a Career in a Helping Profession

One out of five Canadians (according to Health Canada) will suffer from a mental health disorder at some time in their lives. That’s a lot of people, all around us. These individuals are found in every age group and at every socioeconomic level. They use employment assistance or career services. You will encounter them regularly in your office. Maybe you have noticed that a considerable proportion of young people who have a mental disorder value the helping professions and aspire to work in them eventually. This may be surprising, because it is generally accepted that good psychological balance is a prerequisite for intervention in a helping relationship. In university courses in human relations, professors put great emphasis on getting future practitioners to discover their vulnerabilities and the extent to which they may be sensitive to countertransference, etc. Nonetheless, what is the basis for predicting an 18-year-old’s psychological balance five or 10 years from now? I suggest you analyze a case from my practice to identify some useful avenues for intervention by professional career counsellors.

Malorie (not her real name) is a student who is starting college. She suffers from major post-traumatic shock due to childhood abuse. She also has problems with family members and recently decided to leave home. From a fairly young age, she has faced multiple difficulties: bullying, academic failure, health problems, etc. She was hospitalized a few times for mental health reasons. In career counselling sessions, Malorie speaks to me very easily about her career interests. She wants to help people. She knows that her past scars can sometimes make her fragile, but she believes that this is a strength for her in circumstances when other people are in distress. She is thinking of becoming a delinquency practitioner or working in the prison system. She has seen practitioners; she knows how useful they can be for her, but she also complains that there are bad practitioners and that she would want to do a better job.

This personal account naturally led me to deep reflection. At first glance, Malorie may appear defensive and shows aggressiveness that is unusual among my clientele. She also seems to attract a lot of attention, whether deliberately or not. She says she still has symptoms related to her post-traumatic shock. In other words, her problems are not solved yet. So why is she nonetheless attracted by the idea of working in the field of psychological suffering? When I asked myself the question, I already had a hypothesis.

I can understand the choice made by people like Malorie. First of all, from a social constructivist point of view, we can understand that a person constructs hypotheses to explain the unknown based on what she already knows. Faced with the great unknown of her professional future, Malorie hypothesized practicing a helping profession because she deals with these professions every day. She also looks to her experience for evidence supporting her hypotheses. When I listen to this argument, I tell myself that these are only constructs. It makes me want to be prudent.

However, some psychologists, like Boris Cyrulnik, would see Malorie’s case from another angle: resilience. Some people have the capacity to grow when they emerge from a major difficulty. You cannot predict from an adolescent’s experience what development curve she will follow. The resources around her (friends, practitioners, community resources) are also an important factor to consider. Malorie’s next years will play a determining role.

But this does not explain everything. A career choice at the end of adolescence is part of the development of identity, which is the synthesis of a complex duality. The individual seeks to distinguish herself from others but, to achieve this, seeks to resemble defined groups. Malorie feels different than others of her age, because she was treated differently, at home and at school. She sees herself in more marginal professions, such as criminology or delinquency intervention. However, differentiation from others leads the individual to seek to resemble others, particularly significant adult figures. For many youths, the first source of identification is with their parents. They are often interested in their parents’ occupational fields. For youths from dysfunctional backgrounds, the psychosocial practitioner often plays a trusted adult role. Young people like Malorie know the practitioners, what they do and how greatly they are appreciated by others. Added to this is healthy curiosity to find out more about what affects us. Malorie is interested in behaviour and human suffering, because she is trying to give meaning to her experience.

Now that I understood certain aspects of my client’s reflection, how could I guide her to informed decisions? I began my intervention by presenting Malorie with a synthesis of the information collected during our first sessions for orientation and self-knowledge. A synthesis on paper lets me show her that she had professional aspirations contradictory to some of her personal characteristics. I took care to identify the client’s hypotheses among her capacities for success (for example: “My experience will help me understand others”). I then focused on Malorie’s strengths. She has several: she is resilient, a go-getter, ready to deal with the unexpected, resourceful and autonomous. She tells me she is creative and has a lot of imagination. This has been very useful in overcoming her tribulations. We noted all this information on the same synthesis sheet. We were then ready to look through the documentation on the occupations that attract her, taking care to note the possible pitfalls regarding her limits. It was then time to conclude, in light of the information collected, whether the person sees herself going ahead down this path and addressing the identified challenges by using her identified strengths. If your clients are like Malorie, they probably will choose to try their luck and forge ahead. Malorie has applied for admission to a training program as a delinquency practitioner. In the field, with her professors, she ultimately can validate her hypothesis and they can help her develop professionally. We must trust the teachers and the professional orders to supervise their practice well.

So will Malorie be happy with a career in a helping profession? There is no answer to this question. My approach is to let the individual move towards her goals, while suggesting she develop a Plan B, just in case. And remember: there will always be people who defy statistics.



Cyrulnik, B. & Jorland, G. (2012). Résilience : Connaissances de base, Paris, O. Jacob.

Erikson, E.H. (1968). Identity : Youth and Crisis, New York, Norton.

Health Canada, A Report on Mental Illness in Canada, Ottawa, Canada, 2002


A graduate of Université Laval (2005), Émilie Robert is a career counsellor at a CEGEP (Montmorency College) and works exclusively with students with disabilities, especially with people who have a pervasive developmental disorder (PDD)/Asperger’s or a mental health problem. She uses new technology to communicate with the public and career practitioners. Her writings can be found on the following blogs: and


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1 Comment

  1. March 10, 2014, 8:06 pm   /  Reply

    It is so important to recognize the positive impact personal experience provides in the counselling relationship. In this case, Malorie brings a background of hardship and a resilience that she can share with others.

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