Lack of support for therapists leads to burnout. I believe that there is a flow of energy between people. When we feel irritated, we might project this on to someone else by snapping at them or being grumpy. Energy moves from person to person. That’s why bullies are often bullied themselves – they are taking that negative energy bestowed upon them and projecting it onto another person.
In the same way, mental health workers, despite their best intentions to stay emotionally detached, take on negative energy from their work with distressed and stressed out clients. Therapist burnout is common yet very few therapists admit to this because we are expected to function well all the time. We are, after all, mental health experts. Unfortunately, it doesn’t work like that. Mental health workers tend to be empaths and care a lot for others. This tendency adds to the therapist burnout equation making therapists more vulnerable to burnout.
What is causing therapist burnout?
Since the start of the Covid pandemic, many, if not all therapists, are working from home. Every day, therapists are dealing with clients who are struggling with the pandemic. Clients have lost their jobs, they are bored and frustrated and many are feeling anxious and depressed. Being faced with problems day in, day out will take its toll on a person’s mental health. Therapists are human and they don’t work in a clinical vacuum. We have our own issues to cope with and we aren’t immune to the stresses and strains of life.
Sadly, many agencies haven’t made extra provisions for their therapists and we are meant to be self-sufficient and cope alone. Just yesterday I had a client who started the session by insulting my intelligence and telling me that she needed to know my qualifications beforehand because I “seem so young”. By the end of the session, things were going well but therapists are often at the receiving end of other people’s frustrations. Thankfully, most clients are easy to deal with. Mental health services are under strain, especially since Covid-19 emerged and many therapists are fire-fighting. There aren’t enough resources to go around to protect therapists and all the focus is on the client.
This is a short-sighted approach as therapist burnout leads to less therapy for clients who need it.
The Covid pandemic has added an extra layer of complicated stress
Not only do we all have to deal with the usual challenges in life – lack of money, relationship breakups, phobias, and anxiety, we now have the restrictions and limitations of Covid affecting therapeutic outcomes.
For example – if a client has social anxiety, part of the therapy would involve ‘behavioural experiments’ where a client would spend more time socialising rather than avoiding other people and social situations. Clearly, this isn’t possible during the pandemic. Therapists need to be far more creative. On top of that, many people are far more demotivated during the pandemic and this makes it harder for clients to engage and complete therapy tasks in between their sessions. This is just an added complication.
The stigma of therapist burnout
I would be a rich person if I earned money every time someone assumed that my life must be perfect because I am a therapist. That’s the most ridiculous assumption ever. Just because I know the tools and what’s required for good mental health, doesn’t mean I can carry the strategies out in a robot-like manner.
It’s like telling an obese person that they shouldn’t be overweight because they should know that eating less and exercising more is all they need to do. It’s far too simplistic to assume therapists have perfect lives. If this was true, everyone could be taught to be a therapist in school and the world would be perfect…yeah right.
Despite this, many therapists are at pains to admit that they have any issues. I recently saw a therapist for relationship issues and felt guilty and worried about being judged by this therapist. Sadly, I felt disappointed in myself for not being able to fix my own issues.
Thankfully, she is a professional and understands that therapists are human too. In fact, being human is often what makes us a better therapist. When we have experienced tough times it allows us that compassion and empathy for clients experiencing similar challenges. If a therapist ever tells you their life is perfect, take it from me – they are lying.
In fact, the research I have done in the past supports the idea that many therapists choose their profession due to their own experiences with mental illness, whether directly or through a family member or friend. I have not come across a therapist yet that has not been touched by mental health issues in some way.
Mental health is the poorer cousin of physical health
Unfortunately, mental health has always received less attention than physical health. There is less funding and fewer services available. The irony is that if you had to ask anyone whether they would rather lose a limb or lose their mind, the majority would rather lose a limb. Not a great choice but it gets the point across. Without good mental health, nothing can flourish. I believe that if mental health skills were taught in skills we would have a kinder, more tolerant society and less crime but that’s something for another post!
If you are a therapist suffering from burnout, you are not alone and we all need to talk about it more. It’s not a failure, it’s a sign that you’ve been pushing yourself too hard. The tick-box exercise of self-reflection and getting supervision are all well and good but the reality is far from this.