Protective Factors for Self-Care: Therapy
Posted on April 28, 2017
In our professions, trauma and burnout happen. Our mental health is challenged consistently by the pain and suffering that we witness daily. Even those that practice self-care seriously can, from time to time, experience the adverse psychological effects inherent to our work.
When I was in graduate school to become a therapist, our teachers HIGHLY recommended that we engage in therapy ourselves as part of our training. I was lucky enough to be engaged with that therapist the first time I experienced high levels of burnout and secondary trauma. Having someone that I could speak with about my experiences and the emotional impact those experiences had on me was priceless. I cannot say with any confidence that I would be still in this field or do the work that I now love, without that support at a critical time in my career.
As I talk to people around the country about their self-care, I’ve realized a disturbing fact. While many people have disclosed to me their traumatic experiences on the job, I have noticed that many of the same individuals are extremely reluctant to engage in mental health services as part of their recovery from these intense experiences. Why, in professions where we work hard to engage clients in mental health services, do we often stigmatize those services for ourselves?
If I were to design a social service, educational, or public health program from the ground up (and funding was not an issue), I would include clinical or therapeutic supervision as part of the structure of the program. With the prevalence of burnout and trauma in our professions, prioritizing our mental health has a direct impact on the quality of services we can deliver. In my ideal world, clinical supervision with a mental health professional would be a proactive response in a field that is often reactive to the intense reality inherent to this work.
While most of us do not have the luxury of this type of supervision, we do often have access to mental health services through our Employee Assistance Programs and our health insurance. I’ve started to challenge people at my trainings to think about this benefit like a massage. No one I know would turn their back on six free massages if those were offered, so why do we so underutilized these free mental health services? For most of us, six sessions where we could just talk about work stress would be highly beneficial, if not critical, to our ability to continue to provide high-quality services.
When burnout, compassion fatigue, vicarious trauma, and secondary trauma affects us, we are often the last to identify how these issues are negatively affecting our work. Therapy can hold up a mirror so that we can measure our mental health and get an outside, objective, expert opinion on ways we can address difficult issues and promote better health in the future.
We can’t think of accessing mental health services as a weakness or a sign that we are not strong enough to do this work. Instead, I view those who seek services as incredibly dedicated to providing quality services, and to the clients that they serve. Many people who have gotten help turn their struggles into resiliency, reconnect with their passion for the work, and provide more empathetic and compassionate services.
If you would ask me, “Matt, how do I know when I need therapy?” I would say, “Now is a great time!” More specifically, any time you experience vicarious trauma or secondary trauma, or when you’re beyond the exhaustion stage of burnout. The sooner we address helping fatigue, the less of an impact it will have on overall health, and the sooner we return to optimal effectiveness in our work. Therapy also helps to ensure that the struggles of work do not impact our personal lives outside the work environment.
My heroes in this field are people with the insight to recognize and admit that the work has had a negative impact on their well-being, and to seek appropriate help. I see in these people increased resiliency and a greater ability to establish healthy relationships that help clients change their lives.
I’d like to open up the comment section this week for your thoughts on the role of therapy in self-care. First, why do you think many people in our professions stigmatize mental health services for themselves while advocating it for their clients? Second, if you feel comfortable sharing, I would love to hear how therapy has been an effective way for you to deal with struggles and maintain effectiveness in your work.