September is Suicide Prevention Month. Here at TDC we are using our blog as a platform to start conversations around this topic. While suicide is still an oft taboo subject, it is encouraging to see a greater willingness to talk about suicide, self-harm, and mental health in recent years. While there is still a long way to go, we have seen improvements in reducing stigma, evidenced in the prevalence of people speaking out about themselves and loved ones, open discussion around these topics, and the increased presence of mental health issues in mainstream media. A piece of the conversation that I feel is missing for us as therapists, though, is an acknowledgement of the reality that many of us struggle with our own mental health issues, even suicidal ideation.
With 1 in 5 adults diagnosed with some form of mental illness in a given year, 7% of adults suffering from depression, and 34,000 individuals dying by suicide each year (nami.org), it is inevitable that these statistics include people in the helping professions, including therapists. Perhaps even at a higher rate than the general population. Psychoanalyst and psychiatrist Carl Jung introduced the term "Wounded Healer.” A Wounded Healer is someone who is compelled to help others after going through their own experiences of suffering. When an individual survives the wounds of their past, their lived shared experience can help provide deeper understanding and empathy for their clients and can motivate them to help others overcome similar struggles. We hear stories of therapists who have gone into the field because of their experiences with loved ones who have suffered mental illness. There are also countless, often untold stories of therapists who go into the field because of the mental illness they themselves have struggled with or continue to struggle with.
Despite our work to destigmatize mental illness, we as therapists can still fall into traps of believing we must hide our own suffering. I have dear friends in the profession who suffer in silence with their mental illness, hiding it from those around them in ways they wouldn’t if their issues were purely physical. They fear others may judge them, or worse, deem them unfit to continue serving their clients. As I was discussing this topic with a friend and fellow social worker, she shared that she has heard a number of people bring up the idea that if a therapist doesn’t "have their stuff together" how can they help someone else? Some even going so far as to say they wouldn’t see a therapist who sees a therapist. I say to that, I wouldn’t want to see a therapist who has never seen a therapist! Would we not see a doctor because they have gone to a doctor themselves? Certainly not. But these are very real concerns we as therapists can have. And these concerns can unfortunately keep people very isolated in their struggles.
There isn’t an easy fix for this, but we wanted to take the time to write about this topic for several reasons. First: You are not alone in your struggles, fellow therapists. While it may feel like you're on an island, know that there are many excellent therapists out there with past and present mental health issues who are serving their clients well.
Second: Recognize the strength and value your own healed wounds can bring to your work with clients. Your ability to empathize and genuinely understand where your clients are coming from, the compassion you possess, and the awareness you hold based on your experience can be powerful healing tools for your clients-even without any direct self-disclosure. Of course, if you do choose to engage in self-disclosure with your clients about your own mental illness, it is of the utmost importance to carefully consider what you are sharing and why. Consultation with colleagues or supervisors is an essential tool for ensuring that what we choose to disclose is in the best interest of our clients.
Third: who you choose to share your own struggles with is a deeply personal choice that only you can make-but we encourage you to share your struggles with someone. Regardless of when and with whom you choose to share with, be sure to take time to seek out spaces where you can receive support. Engage in self-care on a regular basis, whatever that looks like for you. Seek out your own counseling as needed. Nearly 60% of adults with a mental illness did not receive mental health services in the previous year (nami.org). Sixty Percent! That number is astounding, but not altogether unsurprising. The hour I spend in counseling every other week is one of my most treasured times, and I know that I am a better social worker because of it.
As workers in the mental health field, we have a responsibility to take care of ourselves first before caring for others, and we here at TDC believe our own mental health care is a big piece of that. Even in our coaching, we talk to many individuals preparing for their social work or MFT licensing exams who suffer debilitating anxiety (not just regarding the test, but in other areas of their lives as well), who have never sought out counseling services. We know it is a hard step to take, but it is one that is worthwhile. If you’ve been suffering on your own, consider reaching out for help. Whether that is talking to a friend, family member, classmate, trusted colleague or supervisor, or making a call to schedule a therapy appointment, we encourage you to take the necessary steps to keep yourself from suffering in silence.
And lastly we share because we want to hear your wisdom and experience. What has your experience been like caring for your own mental health while also caring for others? What has helped you open up and seek help when needed? Or what has kept you from doing so? What can we as a community of therapists do to support one another? We encourage you to share in the comments below or join the discussion on our Facebook page.
I can think of two really good reasons to see your own therapist. First, I believe to be effective as empathetic therapists, we have to go to the places we are trying to take our clients. It is difficult to lead others where you have been unwilling to go yourself. I think it has helped me immensely to work on my own issues in therapy for my own growth, to be healthier for the people I treat and also to simply understand what it feels like to sit on the "other side of the room." It's easy to get frustrated with someone when they're resistant to change for example. My response to them is entirely different when I've experienced being resistant to change in my own therapy. I will likely be much kinder and understanding of their struggle. I lean more toward not trusting a therapist that's unwilling to work on their stuff. I'm pretty sure we all it too.
Secondly, depending on the population you serve, it is possible that secondary trauma could hinder your effectiveness both professionally and personally. My family has no idea about the kind of stress I deal with regularly working at the Partial Hospital level of care. Nor should they. My teenagers don't need to know that I spent my day working with a severely depressed patient that survived a suicide attempt by jumping off a building and just got out of the hospital or that I had to break news to a family that their young adult son or daughter is likely schizophrenic and then sit with them in their tears and disbelief and answer their questions and fight back my own tears as I thought about my own children. My teenagers need me to be their mom, not a weary therapist after a challenging day. Thankfully, I have supportive colleagues, but truthfully, all of us are dealing with that kind of stuff fairly regularly. We commiserate but honestly have little left to give each other after a full day of patient care. Seeing a therapist is the only way I know to get the real support I need. Even if I could share all the details with my friends, I wouldn't want to. I have amazing friends but when I'm with them, I want to laugh and see movies and go to dinner and sit by the pool. I need that. AND I need someone that can understand my job and help me stay healthy.
One final thought is this: A very real trauma that therapists experience is the suicide of a patient or client. It is devastating. Working at a high level of care with many patients means that at some point, you will lose someone to suicide. It has not happened to me directly. Yet. But I have been through it with colleagues and it is awful. My impression is that they are expected to be professional (of course) and just carry on. I would like to see us, as a profession, have better answers for this particular situation.