Most of us enter this field with the energy and determination to help others, and with the goal of building a satisfying career. Being a mental health professional can be an incredibly rewarding and fulfilling occupation. However, as with anything else of value, the job has a high price tag. Working day in and day out with people having emotional struggles, while balancing finances, scheduling and paperwork, can drain our energy, enthusiasm, and time. For those of us who intend to be in this profession for the long haul, it is imperative that we find ways to ease our workload and maintain a hopeful perspective.
Frankly speaking, sitting in a classroom has never been something I have enjoyed. Therefore, I was not excited to find out that, as a licensed therapist, ongoing education would be part of my career. Continuing education is not optional for a licensed counselor; most states require ongoing coursework to maintain a counseling license. Soon after starting my career, I began attending courses as a perfunctory chore to stay professional and keep myself up to date. It did not take long to see just how valuable these courses were – not just to stay accredited in my field, but to improve my skills and be better for my patients.
The mental health profession is rarely boring, but our strategies and outlooks can become stale. This impacts not only the efficacy of our treatment, but also the “image” of our efficacy, that is, how others perceive us. When counselors are worn out and worried most of the time or fall back on old and sometimes outdated methods, it doesn’t do much for the mental health field’s reputation. Taking time to meet with other professionals and learn a new skill can be invigorating, and downright energizing. Plus, our value to our clients increases as we learn and evolve.
Any seasoned clinician will tell you that not all continuing education courses are created equal. Talk to colleagues and explore topics you know will interest you. Having zeroed in on those areas of interest, pursue taking those courses. These courses not only hone your skills, but can also lead you into a mental health specialty where you not only survive, but also thrive.
Another proven way to keep perspective and diminish burnout is through peer support. The work of a mental health professional is often weighty. We have to balance high stress client cases, liability, insurance, finances, and seemingly unending paperwork. Not only do we balance these, but many of us in private practice predominantly do it all on our own, or with limited support.
Like most professionals, it can be difficult to express the nuances and challenges of our work with individuals not in the field. We could not expect an accountant or electrical engineer, for example, to understand that stress of sitting with a suicidal teen as you wait for an ambulance. We sometimes need to talk about these experiences, both to process and to learn. Having a person or group of people who have had similar experiences can be an immense support and help. Also, belonging to a professional group or organization can help us when we are facing a clinical or ethical dilemma, and we need an educated outside view or a second opinion. No human is an island. Just as we tell our clients to seek and gain support, we must also do this for ourselves.
As Irving Yalom says, “Every therapist should have a therapy group for themselves to prevent burnout and for their continued professional and personal growth… If I can influence the field, therapists should be seeing peers and talking about their issues, their patients. I am an experienced therapist, but I am always learning from others in groups.“
The Work of Self Care
Although it can be difficult to acknowledge, we have to admit that our energy is finite. We care for ourselves with intention, and to do it in such a way that it enables us to continue counseling meaningfully and to be an asset to our profession. The popularized notion of self-care is random moments of indulgence such as an occasional bubble bath or a walk outside in nature – all of which may be beneficial – but we must do better! Self-care must include advocating for ourselves and practicing the simple but often neglected habits of getting enough rest, taking a lunch break, and making sure we have the tools necessary for our day.
Self-care can take different forms and can be as unique as we are. Therefore, the first step to knowing what self-care is needed is by checking in with ourselves and acknowledging where we might need extra support. Are you noticing a particular client is taking up an inordinate amount of emotional energy? Perhaps you could join a group supervision or work with a colleague on identifying ways to decrease the emotional drain. Feeling overwhelmed with paperwork and billing? Invest in an electronic health records system that helps track billing and paperwork for you. Need more time with your loved ones? Perhaps it’s time for you to take that vacation you have been putting off. You alone know how to refill your emotional tank and build your physical well-being. Take some time to re-evaluate where you are, where you want to be, and how to get there.
Burn-out is a serious threat to us mental health professionals; there is no denying this. We have all had colleagues exit this profession because of the unique pressures we face. We do not want to be on that casualty list. We want to maintain a healthy perspective on life and our work and keep the passion which drew us to this field in the first place.
Luckily, the basics mentioned above can keep us in the game. Peer support is essential. Continuing education keeps things fresh and opens new horizons, and appropriate self-care is a necessity. These “vehicles” can help to carry us a long way down the proverbial mental health “highway” and give us longevity in the amazing profession we have chosen.