If you've gone to therapy during the pandemic, you're familiar with the new normal: no small talk on the walk from the waiting room to the office, just you and your therapist, trying your best on a video call. Levels of anxiety and depression are higher than they were at this time last year, suggesting that for many patients, these sessions are more intense than usual. On the other side of the screen, however, how is your therapist dealing with pandemic stress? The answer, therapists tell Bustle, is not very well.
"Mental health workers can be just as sad or anxious as their clients are, no matter how much self-awareness and coping skills they have acquired over the years," psychologist Kelly Keck, L.M.H.C., tells Bustle. "Burnout affects us physically and emotionally. It disrupts sleep, appetite, interest in activities that you enjoy, and impacts relationships with the people you love spending time with," she says.
But what's most worrisome to Keck is that burnout is not always easy to hide — when, in the mental health field, maintaining the boundary between personal and professional is paramount. "For some therapists, it can impact their work with people and affect their judgment and emotions in sessions, and that’s never a good thing," she says. She points to therapists sharing more about their own lives in sessions with clients as an example, as though their own pandemic trauma is "bubbling over." This can take the focus away from the client's experience.
What It's Like To Be A Therapist In The Midst Of The Pandemic
Typically, after noticing signs of burnout like feeling agitated, sharing her own anxieties in session, or being too overwhelmed to do case notes, Dara*, a licensed professional clinical counselor in private practice, would take time off to recuperate. She no longer feels like she can. "I don't want to take time off right now because I know I'm a weekly touchstone for several of my clients," she tells Bustle. (Dara, like other therapists quoted in this story, requested to use a pseudonym to maintain boundaries around how much their clients know about what they're going through.)
What's more, she feels it's hard to tell her patients everything will be OK when she doesn't have that confidence herself. "It's similar to how I made promises to my children when they were small that they would be safe even though I couldn't guarantee it." Dara also finds virtual therapy more exhausting than in-person visits because they're so intense from the get-go, and lack some of the pauses that an in-person conversation typically calls for — leaving her drained at the end of the day. "Sometimes I finish work and cry."
For Nancy*, a licensed clinical psychologist who works with veterans, the stress of the pandemic has affected her ability to do her best work. "My own mental health is decaying due to isolation, sedentariness, and worrying for the health and safety of my loved ones — some days it feels hopeless," she tells Bustle. In private, Nancy is dealing with the pain of not seeing her father after a triple bypass surgery. A part of her wishes her clients knew what she was going through.
Jeni*, a doctor of behavioral health and licensed professional clinical counselor working in private practice, is also struggling with not being able to visit a sick family member, plus trying to schedule clients around her children, who are schooling from home. "It's been hard to admit that I can't do everything. It's been hard to hold that space of compassion. It's hard to be a therapist during this time," she tells Bustle.
What To Know If You Think Your Therapist Is Burnt Out
"We are tired, we are over-scheduled and we are trying to find ways to take time for ourselves so that we can do our jobs well," Dara says, adding that she plans to increase her sessions with her own therapist from bimonthly to weekly. But the idea that your therapist could be going through the same things you're going through shouldn't keep you from taking full advantage of your sessions.
According to Keck, patients can be mindful of potential burnout, but shouldn't change the way they interact with their therapists unless it feels natural. For example, if it feels weird to start a session without asking your therapist how they're doing, just ask. "I've always felt comfortable with clients asking how I'm doing. It's those platitudes at the beginning of the session that sort of set the tone for the client feeling involved and welcome," she says. Still, she adds, "I hope clients don't notice my burnout. That's an indicator to me that I'm not doing my job if they do."
At the end of the day, it's not your job to work around their burnout. "Therapists are responsible for their own burnout plan and if they require time off they should feel comfortable doing so," Keck says. But recognize that therapists right now may be looking for validation that it's OK to be human, too.
*Name has been changed to protect privacy
Kelly Keck, L.M.H.C, psychologist and mental health center director.