Are you a mental health professional or work in the field of mental health? What are some of your most vivid experiences? There is always at least one experience that made some kind of impact on us emotionally, psychologically, or even physically (i.e, injuries during restraints, etc.). The experience could be positive or even negative. Either way, the experience will probably always be apart of your existence. It’s difficult to work in this field and not be affected.
For most mental health professionals, the field of psychology allowed them to reach out to other people, help people make positive changes and identify their potential, and even promote personal growth. I must admit, I love my field. Despite the many issues that are present and the politics that have dominated good hearted people for years, the field offers so many opportunities for us to be the difference in a cold and lonely world. It allows us to engage in the science of understanding human life and contribute our knowledge to society. It can be intellectually and emotionally stimulating. But there are also times when mental health professionals are barely hanging on. If we’re honest, many of us have probably felt burned out quite a few times than we care to admit. Part of this is due to the fact that the field offers so many opportunities and it can be difficult to say no to them. In other cases, our daily jobs require us to be everything to everyone! Trying to juggle personal and professional stressors can truly take its toll.
Unfortunately, clients and individuals who are not in the healthcare profession, are unaware of the stressors we grapple with on a daily basis. Mental health professionals are often overlooked, taken advantage of, or simply manipulated. Despite a true desire to help, relate, and support, mental health professionals are often seen as either a saving grace or enemy. This is why it is so important for society to remember that there are many things mental health professionals must do and many of their duties are difficult for them to perform. There are many things mental health professionals would love for society to know. But in the meantime, there are 6 confessions many mental health professionals avoid verbalizing which is:
- We feel terrible about reporting families: Believe it or not, the field of psychology often calls on therapists to be like detectives. When working with children, we’re often held to ethical and legal standards that require us to report any suspicion (big or small) of child abuse, neglect, or maltreatment. This is also the case for adults, but cases involving minors can be a bit more complicated. The reporting process can feel long and tedious. It can also make a therapist or mental health professional feel guilty if the suspicion of abuse is minor. In many cases, one utterance from an individual in therapy, most often children and teens, of being hit or mistreated must be reported, even if the story is not 100% believeable. Because of so many mistreated children and teens across the nation, different states have different guidelines but many are strict and require that reports be made to err on the side of caution. According to childhelp.org, about 3 million reports of child abuse are made in the United States each year. It’s an epidemic. We have one of the worst records among industrialized nations of reporting abuse. We lose at least 7 children everyday to abuse. It’s no wonder protective services require healthcare providers to report information within 24 hours of having received a report of potential abuse. But for many innocent families, being reported to child protective services is like being “turned on” or mistreated. The reporting process, for many therapists, can be uncomfortable because so much information is requested. For families, detectives and social workers often show up at many doorsteps announced or unannounced. It can destroy the therapeutic relationship and rupture trust. It’s difficult for everyone involved including the children or teens who are sometimes removed from the home for extended periods of time.
- We feel our client’s trauma: Have you ever heard of the term vicarious trauma or secondary trauma? The term refers to an individual who is emotionally and psychologically affected by the traumatic experiences of someone they are close to, working with, or speaking to. For example, a therapist is rarely able to escape files coming into the office that reports a client’s extensive abuse or traumatic history. Child abuse, child neglect, murder, crime, violent behaviors in the home or neighborhood, gang related violence, poverty, or domestic violence are all situations that client’s seek counseling for. A therapist or other mental health professional who listens to a client’s story, often more than once, can begin to feel overwhelmed, anxious, or even hypervigilant. As hard as it might be to believe, some mental health professionals have their own histories with trauma and can easily become “triggered” by a client’s story or experience. For professionals who are blessed to have had a fairly normal life, they can still experience vicarious trauma if they work with traumatic cases on a daily basis. The National Child Traumatic Stress Network reports that about 10 million youngsters in the U.S. endure the trauma of abuse, violence, natural disasters, and other severe events. No one likes to see a human life being mistreated, especially young children. Therapists and other mental health professionals must listen to details of a traumatic event by a family, child protective agency, or other individual. While working in the healthcare profession, there is no way around it. This is why so many agencies provide trauma informed trainings and teach therapeutic crisis intervention (TCI) or sanctuary model training for staff members. Sadly, many professionals experience secondary trauma and lose the ability to provide emotional support to their clients. This is also called compassion fatigue.
- We get tired: Mental health professionals are overworked and underpaid. Even therapists who are in private practice or working for great organizations, struggle with fatigue. In fact, therapists who are in private practice might feel more tired than those of us who aren’t in private practice due to having to promote themselves, balance their own finances, and avoiding lawsuits. It’s a balancing act that requires mental and emotional stamina.
- We want client’s to trust us and be honest: We are all connected socially. In fact, I’m a firm believer that we are more connected spiritually than socially. What I mean by this is that we have a natural tendency to gravitate toward people who fills an empty void we have. We have a tendency to look for people who connect with our own views, feelings, and life perspective. It can be difficult to listen to and reach out to people we don’t feel we connect with. All lines of communication can be lost if two people aren’t in sync. The entire therapeutic relationship is sometimes contingent upon how well a therapist and the client connects and relates to each other. It’s called rapport. Without this, all is lost! While I can’t speak for all therapists, I do know that many therapists want their clients to trust them and be open with them. They want clients to be honest and provide constructive feedback about whether therapy is working or not. What good is the therapist-client relationship if rapport is poor? Many clients drop out of counseling for this reason alone.
- We just want to go home: At the end of the day and in cases where negative things are going on at home, it can be really difficult for a therapist to concentrate on the duties of the day. For many therapists their duties not only include counseling clients, but also speaking with a client’s case managers or service coordinators, probation officers, police, teachers, schools, place of employment, extended family members, coaches, and other support providers. Many people believe that therapists sit in their offices and talk to clients on a daily basis. While part of this is true, many also engage in case management, testify in court, write evaluations or treatment plans, conduct assessments, respond to subpoenas, coordinate services with agencies, give presentations or trainings, attend trainings (that are sometimes 8hrs or more), respond to phone calls, fax and email paperwork, respond to crisis calls or emergencies, accompany clients to hospitals when they are 302’d, attend county or company meetings, provide psychoeducation at seminars, write articles or books and blogs, etc. The duties of a therapist (or other mental health professional) can vary each day, week, and month. By the end of the day, many therapists simply want to go home and see their families or have a time out. Unfortunately, many do not get this opportunity and often spend long hours in the office. Many therapists aren’t aware that they are burning themselves out.
- We have problems too: It can also be difficult to engage with clients and support them when the therapist himself is struggling. For example, I’ve known colleagues who have had death in their families and still came to work, often exhibiting a phony smile and preppy voice.
As you can see, a mental health professional’s job never ends! For many of us, our moral convictions keep us plugged into our jobs more often than not. One of my personal mentors never rests. When he is not teaching at prestigious universities in the country, he is traveling abroad with nonprofit agencies to provide therapy services overseas or writing his next article to be published in a prestigious journal. For therapists who are more like me and would rather give a presentation or meet with clients on a daily basis, self-care must become a regular part of daily life. A small treat, a gym membership, family time, a date night, etc can all be helpful to those of us who face traumatic stories on a daily basis. What good is a job if you feel too overwhelmed to succeed and truly be of help? I encourage you (and remind myself!) to be mindful of how much time you afford yourself. I think you deserve some compassion because after all, you are only human.