"I don’t dare say that to the therapist, but you know how I feel"

"I don’t dare say that to the therapist, but you know how I feel"

Guest lesson on experiential expertise for Mental Health Care students

31-05-2023 · Reportage

“It is a constant cycle of eating a lot and then spewing it all out again; after a while, you become sick of it.” Despite the serious subject, the play on words elicits a careful laughing in the Blauwe Zaal in UNS50 this Friday afternoon, where students are watching a documentary on eating disorders. Two experts by experience, including a former Law and Psychology student at UM, talk here about how their lives ended up in the clutches of anorexia and bulimia.

It is part of a symposium for third-year students from the Mental Health Care programme within the bachelor’s of Health Sciences, on subjects that are hardly ever touched on in the regular curriculum (“there simply isn’t enough space for this”), but that are “very important”, says programme co-ordinator Dalena van Heugten. This morning, it was about suicide prevention, positive health and the relation between sleep and mental symptoms, now it is time for experiential expertise. This theme has been making a considerable advance in the field of mental health care the past few years. Many institutes now have a team of professionals who use their own experience with mental disorders and recovery to help others, for example in discussion groups.

Two of these experts by experience enter into discussion with the students after the documentary. Why do they now work in health care? “I really like helping people in this way, giving them something I didn’t have,” said one of them. “Having an eating disorder makes you very lonely. Others don’t understand what is going on in your head, you can only do that, I think, if you have gone through it yourself. I regularly hear from clients: ‘I don’t dare say that to the therapist, but I do to you, as you know how I feel’.”


The two have an exercise: ‘Think of a time when you felt very vulnerable’. “Who has the courage to tell that here? Nobody? This is what you will ask of clients later on: open yourself up to a stranger.” It is followed by tips for the future therapists. “The focus is often only on the diagnosis, but the human aspect is lacking. The therapist who helped me most, was the one who I noticed was really touched by my story. If you just run down a list for the treatment plan or the insurance company, it doesn’t feel sincere. Show that you are a human being too.”

To continue: “In the future, you will undoubtedly meet a client who will hold up a mirror to your face, whose experiences you (partly) recognise.” Do you allow that to be noticed at that moment, is the question to the audience. “It would be great to show that, I think that could be very powerful,” a student said. “But you have to be very careful about whether you are really helping the client by doing so,” another one remarks. “When do you use your own experience?”

There is not a univocal answer to that question this afternoon. “It is complex,” says Van Heugten afterwards. “We teach students to keep a professional distance, to remain neutral. But they see today that a certain closeness is important too. That is sometimes a dilemma, in which you ultimately have to find a balance.” So, a matter of experience.

Experts by experience Rob van Heugten and Shannon Blezer after the symposium. Photo: Li Chen


The documentary “Wat je moet (w)eten” (What you need to know/eat) which was shown during the symposium, was made by Rob van Heugten, Shannon Blezer and Guido Vermeulen. All three work as experts by experience for mental health care providers LEVANTOgroep (Van Heugten and Blezer) and Mondriaan (Vermeulen).

Photo: Pexels

Tags: experience,expert,eating disorder,mental health,healthcare,symposium,students,instagram

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