Why Mental Health Workers Need Therapy Too
| Nina Chamlou Reviewed by Carley Trillow, MSW, LICDC
Half of all mental health professionals report experiencing compassion fatigue during their career. But what exactly is compassion fatigue and how can it be avoided?
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Providing therapy can be a deeply fulfilling career. What could be better than helping people overcome emotional hardship and improve their mental well-being? But helping people heal comes with its own set of challenges.
What is Compassion Fatigue?
Therapists are naturally compassionate, which is often what draws them to this career. However, listening to clients regularly describe their struggles and trauma can take a toll on the professional's mental health as well.
The sense of exhaustion mental health professionals feel caused by overexposure to distress is referred to as "therapist burnout" or "compassion fatigue." In severe cases, the listener can become so affected that they experience insomnia, anxiety, and depression themselves. This is called secondary traumatization.
Experiencing burnout is common among mental health professionals. According to a survey conducted prior to the pandemic, over half of all reporting therapists had experienced moderate to high levels of burnout at some point.
"I feel like it's impossible to be in this field and not feel it taking some sort of emotional toll if you're not careful and intentional about self-care practices," Carley Trillow, an Ohio-based licensed social worker and drug and alcohol counselor states. Trillow has worked in both agency settings and in private practice.
While your natural inclination as an empathetic person may be to overextend yourself for a client or accommodate as many clients as possible, these practices ultimately cause burnout.
"You have to become more comfortable initiating stricter boundaries instead of just being a bleeding heart and needing to help everybody," Trillow says. "You want to give it your all, but you have to slowly start to find that balance."
With the rise in fear and uncertainty due to COVID-19, the population has increasingly turned to mental health professionals to help them cope. In fact, more than 1 in 6 Americans sought therapy for the very first time in 2020.
This surge in demand has put even greater pressure on mental health professionals to take on more clients, increasing the risk of burnout. Many therapists say it has been the most challenging period of their careers.
Why Therapists Should Seek Therapy
One of the key ways to prevent compassion fatigue or burnout is to go to therapy. There is a misconception that once therapists are trained, they don't need external support. But there are multiple benefits for therapists receiving therapy.
As Part of Your Education
As Sigmund Freud wrote in 1912, "Anyone who wishes to practice analysis should first submit to be analyzed himself by a competent person."
In Europe, Freud's beliefs on this subject are law. Therapists must take part in a minimum of 250 hours of personal therapy to obtain licensure. This isn't the case in the United States. However, most U.S. graduate programs require students to undergo a certain number of hours in therapy. This is typically a weekly therapy session for 1-2 semesters.
Experiencing the vulnerability of opening up to a therapist helps you develop professionally by relating to clients on a more authentic level.
"It is highly recommended that therapists go to therapy at some point because they need to stay connected to their client's experience. They need to be able to empathize with their clients and what it feels like to regularly share your feelings and be vulnerable with another person," Trillow explains.
"Also, as a therapist going to therapy, you're kind of learning what you want to do [with your own clients]. So if you like your therapist, then you may try to mimic some of the things that they bring to you."
To Better Understand Yourself
Receiving therapy as a mental health professional also helps you better understand your own blind spots and triggers. This not only benefits your own personal development, but will prevent bias from affecting how you react to your clients' issues. For example, you may hold unconscious biases related to issues like sexuality, substance abuse, political affiliation, or race.
Having unconscious biases doesn't make you a bad person; our brains naturally tend to form mental shortcuts to make faster decisions. Addressing biases helps you become the best therapist you can be for your clients. A trusted mental health professional can help you untangle these patterns.
"It's important not just to go to any therapist, but one that you have a very strong connection to," Trillow says. "Once you have that person that you do trust, it makes a world of difference."
As Part of Your Own Mental Health
Even the most mentally stable individual often needs help coping with life's challenges, such as transitional periods, family conflict, loss, and grief. Therapists also experience these hardships and need to purge emotions and receive support.
Trillow explains that there is no standard for how often therapists should go to therapy. Some choose to go sporadically, on an as-needed basis, while others choose to attend regularly.
"Everybody is unique. One person's needs may be different from another's. A lot of people go for a couple months and then take a break and go for a couple more months," Trillow explains. "I think I may move from being a person who just goes [to therapy] seasonally to chronically because it's life changing both personally and professionally."
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