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Mental health providers have an incredibly challenging and emotionally demanding job, especially as we face year after year of “unprecedented” stress and world events.
In addition to managing our emotional responses, we support clients throughout their journeys. This demanding work can lead to compassion fatigue or secondary trauma, which can negatively impact our mental health.
Our own self-care is just as important as our clients’ personal wellness. Unfortunately, the shortage of providers, the increase in the need for mental health care, and the pressures from world events have made maintaining our well-being seem impossible. In fact, a 2022 survey by the American Psychological Association found that approximately 45% of therapists are experiencing burnout.
This guide aims to help you identify your self-care needs and establish a sustainable practice for mental wellness in your professional and personal life.
Challenges in mental healthcare: recognizing the signs of burnout
The mental health field attracts individuals with a deep compassion for others, often leading us to prioritize supporting the needs of others over our own. Balancing the paradox of being a caring therapist without risking burnout is challenging, but essential.
We walk a fine line—connecting and empathizing with clients while safeguarding our mental well-being. Like anyone in any profession, therapists and mental health providers deserve care and support. No job should demand sacrificing well-being despite organizational pressures suggesting otherwise. Our commitment to maintaining mental health is a fundamental aspect of our humanity.
Additionally, burnout negatively impacts the quality of care we provide. Competent mental health care requires being in a mental state to support our clients effectively. If prioritizing self-care for your sake feels challenging, remember that it enhances the care you offer your clients.
5 provider strategies for maintaining mental wellness
Mentioning “self-care” alone doesn’t grant immunity from burnout. Active steps are necessary to sustain and enhance our mental health. Fortunately, you don’t have to navigate this journey alone. Seeking support from colleagues and peers and drawing wisdom from others can help you identify strategies that align with your needs.
Today, you can kickstart your self-care journey with one or a combination of these five strategies. Select the approach that resonates most with you.
Self-reflection and awareness
It’s common to become engrossed in our work and overlook our needs. Take a moment to reflect on your mental state and current needs, fostering awareness of your emotions. If you’ve been working through burnout, these practices might initially feel like you’re declining, but they’re crucial for highlighting underlying issues.
Consider the analogy of twisting an ankle while hiking. You might only feel the pain after completing the walk. Resting didn’t cause the injury—it simply allowed you the space to recognize the issue.
This practice tunes you into your needs, aiding in identifying adjustments that can facilitate recovery from any underlying burnout you may be experiencing.
Maintaining mental health requires balancing work and personal life, and establishing healthy boundaries is crucial. Yet, declining additional work, clients, or extended hours is challenging when the demand is high and people need assistance. Colleagues and employers may press for more, making it difficult to assert a “no.”
It’s important to recognize that “no” is a complete sentence. You don’t need to justify or prove your need for boundaries or rest. If pressured, confidently repeat your refusal.
Taking charge of referrals allows you to convey boundaries efficiently. Set up voicemails, auto-reply emails, and website information to communicate your limits to potential clients without repetitive explanations.
Personally, I include referral details in my email, voicemail, and website, ensuring that when I’m at capacity, potential clients receive this information automatically, sparing me the need to reiterate it individually.
Supervision, consultation, and peer support
Peer support plays a vital role in the mental health field. We have an ethical obligation to consult on cases and seek supervision when needed, not only for our clients but also to monitor our mental health and guard against burnout.
Maintaining a circle of trusted peers is invaluable for our well-being. While friendships are beneficial, connecting with colleagues who comprehend the unique stress of our work can significantly diminish feelings of isolation.
Your brain is an organ integral to your overall physical health. The connection between physical and mental well-being is reciprocal—caring for your body often positively impacts mental health. Despite therapy being somewhat passive, finding time for physical well-being amid long work hours is crucial.
Incorporate brief moments throughout the day to move your body, even for just a few minutes. Take a short walk between sessions or stretch in your office. Prioritize your lunch break and consume balanced meals that fulfill your nutritional needs.
Stress reduction and coping skills
Coping skills for stress reduction vary from person to person. What proves effective for one might be unhelpful or even detrimental to another. Exploring different strategies, hobbies, and stress reduction methods is essential to find what resonates with you.
Mindfulness is a powerful tool for many to cope with stress, preventing burnout and fostering self care. However, it’s not a one-size-fits-all solution—it may heighten pain or distress for some.
If mindfulness works for you, helping you reduce stress or more easily accept uncontrollable circumstances, consider incorporating deep breathing exercises. These exercises focus your awareness on the present moment, reducing physiological arousal and promoting calmness.
Daily self-care practices for providers
Effective self-care requires regular implementation. It means prioritizing mental health daily, regardless of how busy we might be. Though it’s tempting to prioritize productivity over self-care, intentionally integrating these practices into our routines is crucial. Making mental health a priority necessitates consistent attention to self care.
Implementing self care into daily routines
While the impulse to make substantial changes to prioritize self care is understandable, these major shifts can prove challenging to sustain. Small, manageable adjustments are sustainable and easier to incorporate over time.
One effective approach is setting PACT goals for your self care—purposeful, actionable, continuous, and trackable. Unlike other goals, PACT goals don’t hinge on a specific outcome for success. Instead, they emphasize the ritual or habit you’re cultivating.
For example, if your PACT goal is to walk a certain number of minutes daily, the pace isn’t crucial—maintaining the practice is what matters.
Purposeful goals aim for long term impact, while actionable goals are within our physical and mental capabilities. Continuous goals are sustainable practices over the long term, and trackable goals allow measurement through logging engagement frequency.
Implementing a PACT goal system introduces accountability into your self-care routine.
Technology and self-care
A wealth of apps can assist you in creating and maintaining a self-care plan. However, it’s crucial to carefully assess mental health apps, as some are developed by tech professionals lacking the necessary training for addressing mental health needs. Experiment with different applications to find those you enjoy and which help you recharge.
The Moments app by Spring Health provides self-care and mindfulness exercises. Another app created by and for mental health providers in the Defense Health Agency is Provider Resilience, which cues self-care skills and tracks burnout symptoms.
Overcoming barriers to self-care
You deserve the same care you extend to others without having to justify your needs or reach a point of exhaustion to “earn” rest. It’s common to grapple with guilt when trying to step back or establish boundaries around work. However, it’s crucial to remember that, as many therapists say, feelings are not facts. Guilt surrounding self care reflects your commitment to your work, but doesn’t diminish your right to care and rest.
The expectation for therapists to be unyielding machines, impervious to human needs, is a flawed assumption perpetuated by mental health providers and employers. Challenging this notion is essential.
As a mental health professional, you can set boundaries based on your needs and clinical limitations, even establishing firm boundaries with your employer. A supportive manager will respect and acknowledge these boundaries.
A lifelong commitment to self care
Therapists constantly emphasize the significance of self care to clients, yet at times, we overlook that we share the same needs. As human beings, just like our clients, maintaining an effective self-care routine is crucial for showing up in our roles and delivering our best work while safeguarding our mental health.
Understanding that self care isn’t a journey with a definitive endpoint is vital. A successful self-care routine is continuous and requires lifelong maintenance, adapting to changing individual needs. Practicing kindness toward oneself and remaining attuned to personal needs are essential aspects of this ongoing process.
Discover how building a strong therapeutic alliance creates the foundation to assist patients in reaching mutually defined treatment goals.