If you google “therapists’ mental health during COVID-19,” you see a lot of resources for finding a therapist during the pandemic. This is necessary; a lot of people’s mental health is suffering right now. But it’s reflective of how little thought many of us give to therapists’ mental health. What is it like to carry others’ worries about a pandemic you yourself are living through?
Monica O’Neal, a therapist who was interviewed for Boston Magazine, received her training during 9/11. Her PTSD was so severe she thought she wouldn’t make it through school. But she did, because she was able to process the experience and start to move forward. Still, she said doing her job during a global pandemic is like nothing she’s ever experienced. There’s no stopping point that allows her patients to fully process what’s happening. “The difference now is that, even though 9/11 led to war…it felt finite: something happened, and we responded,” she said. “With this [COVID-19]…it’s like a tiger is jumping out of the woods at every single minute. You can never get people on stable footing.”
Feelings of helplessness abound in the world. Many people feel like there’s little about the current crisis they can control. It may be difficult in those circumstances to be tasked to help.
One therapist, Chelsey Miller, told me, “Questions like ‘how can I be helpful when the reality is so daunting?’ arise. Also, being emotionally and physically available to others can prove difficult when you are going through something as well.”
But Miller also told me that going through a crisis together has made her feel particularly connected to her patients. Some of the work of therapy, she points out, is empathizing with your patients. In the past she’s had overlap in life experiences, but never on this level. She can use the fact that she’s going through a similar thing as part of the therapeutic process. As she put it: “Living through it too puts me in a particular position to utilize my own self as an example, whether that’s done explicitly by verbalizing it to a patient or just by letting it inform what I say and which techniques I use.”
But empathizing with patients on this level can be intense. Of all the (many) therapists I know personally—and therapist interviews I could find online through admittedly meager Google results—almost every person uses the word “intense” at some point.
I imagined the hardest part would be holding other peoples’ worries in addition to your own, so I asked Miller if she thinks about her sessions outside of work. She said she does. “It is difficult to turn these thoughts off, particularly when I, too, am experiencing them and am bombarded by news, media, etc,” Miller said. “However—as a clinician must learn to do during normal times—it is important to try to turn some of these thoughts off…This is best not only for my mental health, but my patients’ as well.”
Some of the things she does to cope are spending time with family, limiting news intake, exercising, listening to music, and reading. For O’Neal, routine helps. She takes small moments for herself throughout the day—even if that means simply making time in the morning to breathe.
Miller mentioned that she feels grateful for her own therapist. Therapists need mental health care, too—especially now. “I’m so lucky that I get to continue to meet with my own therapist virtually,” Miller said, “who is not only calming and extremely helpful to me, but is also going through the same thing as me—to bring it full circle.”
If you are a therapist struggling with a substance use or mental health disorder, you are not alone. It may feel more comfortable for you to help others, but it is okay to ask for help. At TruHealing Centers across the country, you will receive the support you need to thrive in long-term recovery. To find out more, call an admissions specialist at 410-593-0005.