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Therapy for Trauma Professionals: Why the Conflict?

Providing help to others, but uncomfortable in seeking care for themselves.

As a trauma psychologist, I regularly teach classes on the topic of self-care to students and professionals who intend to work or work with traumatized populations. Self-care encompasses strategies or activities in which an individual can intentionally participate in order to care for his or her psychological, emotional, and physical health. These strategies can include but are not limited to eating balanced meals, exercising, developing a regular sleeping routine, and maintaining social support in relationships with family and friends. In each of my lectures I also promote another essential self-care strategy: going to therapy. But I have repeatedly noticed that my suggestion of therapy is almost always met with stunned silence, persons uncomfortably shifting in their seats, and diverted eyes.

I have met many people who work with stressed populations—whether in non-profit organizations, governmental or non-governmental agencies, hospitals, religious institutions, first responders, or in the fields of mental health or education—and have often encountered the same response regarding enrolling in therapy. Specifically, I have noticed that the professionals or students who are proud to be in the front lines providing help to stressed populations are ashamed themselves to seek care. Why the stigma toward therapy?

Seeking an answer to this contradiction, I reached out to Dr. Dan Lannin from Illinois State University and Professor Patrick Corrigan from the Illinois Institute of Technology, two researchers focused on the topic of stigma. Lannin’s research focuses on psychological barriers to seeking mental health care. One important barrier is the societal stigma attached to therapy, as it may suggest mental illness. This societal stigma can result in self-stigma, or the internalization of negative societal stereotypes related to mental illness and therapy. As Lannin explained, these professionals may be responding to deep-seated fears of having mental health issues, and wanting to distance themselves from the fear of being labeled as 'damaged' or 'crazy.' This fear is understandable, given Corrigan’s findings that society holds a lot of stereotypes, prejudice, and discrimination surrounding mental illness.

Illinois State University
Dr. Dan Lannin
Source: Illinois State University

Lannin explained that students or professionals who work with traumatized populations may have a conflict due to their identity or values, “Particularly, it is very important to be viewed as high achieving and competent, to have a sense of social status. Getting help might contradict those values and life goals." The persons that work in the field of trauma might find that “their values are pulled in two directions: On the one hand, they want to be compassionate towards others, on the other hand, they might need to be self-interested if they want to focus on their own success, and those motivations might be pushing and pulling.”

Yet there are many reasons to attend therapy that have nothing to do with mental illness or pathology. The fear of a label or external judgment can keep professionals from obtaining the support that they need on a wide variety of topics. For instance, therapy can be the time and space to discuss relationship or family issues, examine various aspects of their identity, or to process events from their youth. Therapy can be an excellent resource for setting personal and professional goals, an effective setting for self-examination, or a space for healing. For those interested in working as a therapist, much can be learned about the therapeutic relationship, whether by learning about the treatment methods of other therapists, or to address their experience of working with patients. Additionally, working with populations who have experienced trauma can be very stressful, and it is important for professionals to have a safe space where they can process their work experiences and its accompanying stress, establish boundaries, and combat burnout.

Illinois Institute of Technology
Professor Patrick Corrigan
Source: Illinois Institute of Technology

Lannin recommends that seminaries, universities, companies, and organizations should be tolerant, demonstrate kindness, and work to “quiet the self-critical voice” of their trainees, students, and employees. He believes that in “institutions where we value mental health it is vital to promote and model compassionate values, and to talk about the importance of being compassionate toward others.”

To combat the potential stigma of mental illness, Corrigan recommended inviting “a person with lived experience of mental illness, and have them in class as a respected peer.” He urges professionals to remember that "we come from empathy. That’s where our effectiveness is.”

Working with traumatized populations can be intense, rewarding, challenging, and exciting. But working with traumatized populations when one has experience in therapy can potentially make an enormous difference in the quality of one’s professional work and private life. The stigma of seeing a mental-health expert should not stand as a barrier to self-care.

LinkedIn Image Credit: Kiwis/Shutterstock


Lannin, D. G., Ludwikowski, W. M. A., Vogel, D. L., Seidman, A. J., & Anello, K. (2018). Reducing psychological barriers to therapy via contemplation and self-affirmation. Stigma and Health. Advance online publication.

Corrigan, P. (2004). How stigma interferes with mental health care. American Psychologist, 59(7), 614-625.

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