The Big Problem of Burnout for Mental Health Professionals

Self-ImprovementPsychology

  • Author Dr. Dawn Brown
  • Published November 15, 2021
  • Word count 1,291

The COVID-19 pandemic brought many big challenges into our lives, from the obvious one of the threat to global health to the more peripheral problems that resulted. Living through 2020 and beyond has taken its toll, particularly in the realm of mental health.

With stressors building up, grief accumulating, and anxiety at an all-time high, mental health has become a much higher concern and it’s the professionals of the industry that feel the strain. The result: a dangerous brush with burnout.

This is not a new issue. The difficulties and demands of the job have always put mental health professionals at an increased risk of burnout.

"Mental health professionals" can represent a number of roles in the mental health field i.e. psychiatrist, psychologist, therapist, psychotherapist, etc. In this article, the role "therapist' refers to any of these roles, as each mental health professional provides some type of therapy service in their practice.

Even before the pandemic, a survey conducted in early 2020 recorded an estimated 42% of physicians reporting being burnt out. Now, with the additional pressure placed on the mental health industry, the problem of burnout for the psychiatry community is one that cannot be ignored.

What Is Workplace Burnout?

Burnout is a mental health issue experienced throughout the working world when the responsibilities of a role grow so overwhelming that the person is lost underneath them. The World Health Organization has described the phenomenon as “a syndrome conceptualized as resulting from chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed.”

It can happen to anyone, even those without any official job title, such as parents, who have plenty of stress of their own in caring for children. It is, in fact, caregiving roles that can particularly make burnout likely. This may be one reason why those in healthcare, including mental health professionals, tend to experience burnout at much higher rates.

How Mental Health Professionals Are Vulnerable to Burnout

Many of those that choose to take on a profession in the field of mental health do so from a place of passion and a true desire to help others. Strongly caring about the work one does can be a great daily motivation. Yet passion that pushes you into selfless dedication is unhealthy and can explain why mental health professionals have been experiencing an extremely high rate of burnout.

There is, however, much more to it, with many factors contributing to the vulnerability to burnout among mental health professionals.

General On-the-Job Stress

Often, the cause of burnout for a therapist is not all that much different than for someone with a completely different job description. Stress accumulates as more is continually demanded of them. This job isn’t easy, and if they push too far without setting up boundaries for self-care, burnout will easily be the result.

Of course, stress-related burnout should be no surprise as the pressure placed on mental health professionals grows. With a mental health epidemic calling more people to seek help while inadequate resources make helping them difficult, many mental health professionals feel that they are left with no choice but to push themselves. Much of the problem comes down to the fact that they really do care about their patients, and this can lead them to taking on too much and allowing the stress to build up.

Carrying Extra Emotional Burden

Consider as well that there is a different sort of stress in this field than would be found in others. While many professionals may have to contend with the stress of tight deadlines and too many tasks on their list, therapists may face the stress of working with someone who’s suicidal, of working through others’ traumatic histories, and of carrying all the emotional burden that comes with caring for the mental health of others.

Besides burnout, these specifics of the job description can also lead to “Emotional Fatigue.” This is when hearing all the stories of sadness, trauma, and grief adds up and takes its toll. Therapists that want to be there to connect and help in emotional healing only end up burdened by the weight of doing so and burnt out in a different sort of way. The responsibilities of the job come with consequences.

Now with the Additional Obstacle of Covid-19

Feeling the consequences of such a difficult job has only become more likely with the additional burden of Covid-19. With the start of the pandemic, instances of mental health issues have increased. Sudden changes to an individual’s life can be stressful, so it makes sense that such a big change on a global level has increased demand for mental health services.

Yet a greater challenge has presented itself in how those mental health services can’t be provided in the same way. We’ve had to learn new ways, such as telehealth therapy, which may also be new and challenging for the clients. Therapeutic recommendations that we’ve always relied on may have had to be reconsidered, as social distancing took away the ability to grab a meal with a friend, for example.

So, while increased demand pushed many therapists to extend working hours and give more of themselves to the job, big changes required by the pandemic left many still feeling like they weren’t able to fulfill their role. These past many months have certainly posed bigger risks for burnout in mental health professionals.

Addressing the Critical Issue

Burnout becoming so prevalent among mental health professionals is not something to be taken lightly. It is itself a mental health issue - one that has effects not just on the therapists themselves but also on the patients they are responsible for.

For both of these reasons, the rate of burnout is a critical issue.

Inability to Properly Provide Client Care

When mental health professionals get burnt out, they are not the only ones that must deal with the results. Burnout can interfere with giving patients the mental health treatment that they need. Therapists who are overwhelmed and burnt out may develop a cynical attitude towards clients and find themselves unable to properly provide care.

In the end, burnout not only affects the one experiencing it, but also all of their clientele.

Personal Mental Health Detriment

At the heart of it though, mental health professionals suffer from burnout because they are human and because they care so much. That they - human beings - are struggling with this condition, should also be enough for us all to care. The professionals providing mental health services have their own mental health concerns too, aggravated as a result of the profession itself.

Improving the lives of these individuals starts by addressing conditions such as burnout.

What Can Be Done

While a career in psychiatry can bring along these risks to a professional’s mental health, burnout does not have to be the inevitable outcome. Working in mental health, we should mostly know what needs to be done to address and prevent burnout, but sometimes, it’s easier to give advice to others than to follow it yourself.

Perhaps what mental health professionals need are a few reminders:

Remember that you exist for more than just to help other people, that you are also a person that needs to be taken care of. Make sure you’re not giving everything away to others, that you’re saving some of yourself for yourself.

Remember that it’s okay if you devote less hours to clients in order to make room for self-care. After all, trying to work while burnt out doesn’t actually help anyone.

Remember that therapists need to be actively taking care of their own mental health in order to give clients the proper care. Burnout in the mental health industry benefits no one.

Child, Adolescent, Adult and Sports Psychiatrist, Dr. Dawn Kamilah Brown (https://drdawnpsychmd.com/), is the Founder and CEO of Mental Healthletics™ a concierge practice and serves as the company’s Sports Psychiatrist. Dr. Dawn is also the Founder and CEO of the ADHD Wellness Center (https://adhdwellnesscenter.com/) and has two private practice locations in Texas, with a growing virtual presence.

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