Frontline Initiative: The Diverse Voices of Direct Support Professionals
Advocating for My Own Mental Health as a DSP
Author, Kiley Brennan and her trained service dog.
Being a direct support professional (DSP) is a highly rewarding job. It is also very demanding and draining. Though I would never trade it for the world, there is a delicate balance of taking care of my own body and mind while supporting others’ needs at the same time. I am a DSP who lives with mental health challenges. I have additional care needs for myself that I must attend to in order to show up and provide the best direct support on a daily basis. I can only hope to bring awareness as a fellow DSP, staff member and co-worker to the importance of not only taking care of yourself but also advocating for what you need.
Shortly after I began working as a DSP in 2019, I experienced mental health challenges almost every day I was on the job. When it started affecting my ability to carry out my responsibilities, I started setting aside my own needs to make sure I could keep up on my role and duties to the people I support. This quickly led to burnout. I became so overwhelmed that most days I didn’t even have the energy to get out of bed and make it to work. I was embarrassed and ashamed. I didn’t have the courage to advocate for myself and bring it to the attention of my management. I was hesitant to bring up my situation and talk about the accommodations that I needed. In the past, I’ve had the request for accommodations used against me. As staff, we shouldn’t have this fear. It soon became clear to me what I needed to do. If I did not advocate for myself and make my voice heard, I could lose my job. Losing my job would be even worse for my mental health. I had to stand up for myself and my own mental health. I knew I needed to explain to my employer the accommodation that would help me at work. I have a psychiatric service dog. She is trained to help me cope with panic attacks, alerts me when my anxiety is high, and provides Deep Pressure Therapy during a panic attack. I hadn’t been taking her to work, but I realized that I needed her support.
I did summon up the courage to talk to my employer about my need and I started to bring my service dog to work. What came next wasn’t easy. There was stigma and negativity from my coworkers. Even though we are in the business of providing support for others, there were questions from my co-workers as to whether I actually had a mental health diagnosis. It was hard to be questioned, to be asked for medical proof. It was hard to be put through an experience that made me feel completely invalidated and lesser than everyone else. I felt unsafe. People who so easily provide support for people with disabilities seemed to forget or not realize that their fellow DSPs may also struggle and need support.
I want to share my story so any other DSPs who may be questioning whether to advocate for their own mental health needs and accommodations will be motivated to get the support they need.
I want to share my story so any other DSPs who may be questioning whether or not to advocate for their own mental health needs and accommodations will be motivated to get the support they need. I love my job, but I also need to pay attention to my own health. If we come together and share our experiences as DSPs, we can create more awareness of how to support each other. Know that if you have similar struggles with your mental health, you are not alone. Speak up, no matter how hard it may seem or feel. I assure you; the outcome is worth it. The journey never ends, and I still run into bumps in the road where my anxiety is overwhelming. Advocating for myself and my mental health makes me feel stronger to take on the difficult times. It gives me hope and confidence for my future success.