Thrive by IU Health

May 11, 2023

When therapists need therapy

When therapists need therapy

One in five U.S. adults experience mental illness each year, and less than half receive treatment for it, according to the National Alliance on Mental Health. Among those experiencing mood, thinking and behavior issues are the mental healthcare providers who work to support everyone else.

Providing behavioral healthcare can be a difficult and mentally exhausting job. Providers may experience something called “compassion fatigue,” which is the emotional strain from working with people who are processing traumatic events. By meeting with and listening to their patients’ traumas and challenges, mental healthcare providers absorb the burden of other people’s emotions. The Substance Use and Mental Health Services Administration suggests symptoms of compassion fatigue include:

  • Feeling overwhelmed, helpless and extremely tired
  • Disorientation or confusion
  • Frustration, cynicism, anger or irritability
  • Physical symptoms like shortness of breath, increased headaches, heart palpitations, muscle tension or trouble falling asleep

Mental healthcare providers can also experience burnout, which is emotional exhaustion and withdrawal following increased workloads and stress. This problem may worsen as the United States faces a growing shortage of psychiatrists matched with a massive demand for mental health services.

Mental healthcare providers are in the unique position of absorbing and processing their patients’ emotional challenges without the freedom to reciprocate. If you have a bad day, you tell your therapist; your therapist doesn’t tell you about their bad day. Plus, mental healthcare providers can’t discuss their work with their friends and families, as most workers can. This can make therapists feel isolated. The exhaustion from managing other people’s problems can leave little energy to manage their own.

While therapists and mental health counselors are trained to provide helpful insight and advice for anxiety and depression, there comes a time when they need to pursue their own therapy. Talking to a therapist or counselor can help mental healthcare providers better understand their own blind spots and triggers. Plus, this can offer a safe space to gain support from a peer who truly understands the nature of this difficult work. This offers a chance for a mental healthcare provider to experience empathy from the other side of the chair. It also helps therapists avoid transferring their own unresolved emotions to their clients.

To prevent or head off these challenges, mental healthcare providers, therapists and crisis counselors can regularly meet with colleagues and supervisors to debrief and discuss these internal challenges. Ongoing training and peer support—even buddy systems—can help these professionals release pressure before it leads to fatigue.

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