Counselors, Please Consider Your Own Mental Health Needs

Respite and self-care are critical for those whose job is to help others.

Posted Sep 24, 2019

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In conversations with my colleagues, clients and the college counselors with whom I often consult or lecture, I have for many years, mentioned – usually in passing – challenges inherent in the work of mental health professionals.

Interactions nearly always carry high stakes. Progress can be slow and difficult to measure. The urgency of working with individuals and families in crisis makes it difficult to remember one’s own mental health needs.

This thinking was tragically brought home when I learned of the suicide of Gregory Eells, most recently the director of Counseling and Psychological Services at the University of Pennsylvania, one of the most passionate and respected experts on mental health in higher education. His death should serve as a warning and call to action for all who interact with mental health professionals – clients/patients, fellow counselors within and outside educational settings and colleagues in other professions – such that a community comes together to emphasize the importance of helpers helping themselves and those similarly situated.

It should serve as no surprise that individuals focused on the care of others – treating illness, offering behavior alternatives, providing case management support and designing legal roadmaps – can pay a heavy price for their attention and devotion. Problems and stresses, both on the job and at home, can feel small and insignificant in the face of those in crisis. It’s easy to overlook the importance of taking a vacation, or even just a break, when the work inevitably begins to take a toll.

As a mental health attorney – a “counselor-at-law” – who works closely with families desperate to help loved ones who have serious mental illness, I understand this challenge all too well. I want to do everything I can to help my clients. Move every mountain. Look for solutions under every rock. I take enormous pride in what I give of myself. And often at the end of the day, I put aside my caseload to watch “chick flicks” and read lawyer novels and cozy mysteries. The fact that these films and novels aren’t the most intellectually stimulating is precisely the point. Through them, I can easily immerse myself in a world of fiction and escape reality, such that when I go back to the real world, I am refreshed.

We all need to identify our preferred means of stress-management and self-care, investing in activities and relationships that provide comfort and support, allowing us a chance to reboot. This doesn’t make us weak, but stronger and more fit to help those who depend on our support and expertise. We must be more direct and insistent about this need to take care of ourselves – with our colleagues, supervisors, patients/clients and ourselves.

It’s encouraging to see so many education-focused publications address Dr. Eell’s death with similar calls to address the pressures, fatigue, and burnout experienced by mental health counselors. Yet I worry. We live in tumultuous, polarizing times. Tragedies from mass shootings and suicides to overdoses and hate crimes stoke sadness and fear and generate stress. This impacts all types of people, from K-12 and college/university students to myriad mental health professionals, family caregivers, stay-at-home parents, and others. Society’s growing emphasis on mental health care will (hopefully) lead these individuals to seek help from counselors. How will they deal with the onslaught, especially with the lack of outpatient and community programs, school-based services, supportive housing, and mental health/substance abuse treatment teams? Our broken mental health system is contributing to the crisis.

Unless and until mental health services become a priority, whether in education, mental health, clinical practice or beyond, we will sadly and tragically see these trends continue. We must make this a priority now before we learn that yet another of our highly respected professional colleagues, clients or friends is suddenly gone.