Shrinks in distress
There is a telling scene in the movie Reign Over Me, where the reluctant Charlie Fineman refuses to see a therapist because she is “a baby”.
Fineman believes the therapist’s youth disqualifies her from understanding the magnitude of his traumatic experience. And in real life, many will attest to wanting to see a believable, understanding and experienced counsellor to help them work through their mental health issues.
“Mental health practitioners are generally believed to hold all the cards to mental health,” says Gcina Makaula a clinical psychologist. “People want to feel they are with the right person. The brain is a very fragile organ to mess with. As a psychologist, I cannot ignore my own bias. I believe that psychologists are best at doing therapy. However, I cannot say that all psychologists are good, and I cannot claim that all social workers, mental health workers, or psychiatrists are bad. There are some very capable social workers who I refer cases to and some psychiatrists who I believe are great pharmacologists and diagnosticians.”
But many clients may be shocked to discover that the therapists they are seeing are in distress and may be seeing a therapist in turn. Seeing a psychologist in distress is unsettling.
In 2010, the Mental Health Information Centre released a paper on the burn-out phenomenon of psychologista concluding that: “Anecdotal evidence suggests that support through peers, organisation or family/friends may be effective against established burn-out.” In short, they need an outlet. And since we all know that the most therapeutic outlet comes in the form of counselling they hire these professionals themselves.
Says Yolanda Mkhize, a social worker and psychology student in Canada: “Nobody gets in this profession because they are in perfect balance, it’s the awareness of the imbalances that they recognise and use to help others with. Nobody in their right mind can say they were born or cut out for that job.”
She continues: “Of all people, psychologists are aware of the nature versus nurture debate. So their lives, environments and other dispositions make them pursue this line of work. They are made not born,” she stresses. “I would never be able to do my job if I had not had certain life experiences, in turn.”
She laughs. “Humourist Erma Bombek has a nice theory to this: “Never go to a doctor whose plants have wilted.” But how do you know your shrink does not need help?
The MHIC lists a number of factors which lead to psychologists’ burn-out. “In order to understand psychiatrists’ susceptibility to burnout, one needs to examine the factors that make psychiatry a stressful profession,” reads the paper. “Researchers identified violence and the fear of violence, limited resources, crowded in-patient wards and an increasing culture of blame creeping into the mental health services as the main sources of stress for psychiatrists.”
Luckily for us, our psychologists are kept in check. The MHIC obligates mental practitioners to weekly or monthly sessions with therapists. “High work-demands without adequate resources, conflict between responsibility toward employers vs toward the patient, isolation of consultants in community mental health teams and lack of feedback were identified as sources of stress,” says Makaula.
“Work overload, responsibility for patients and relapsing patients are factors in the top five sources of stress,” she says.
Although they don’t make peanuts (it generally costs around R550 for an hour’s session with a therapist), mental overload surpasses rewards like money and patient’s success.
Bombek has this to say about the matter too: “A brain is a lot like a computer. It will only take so many facts, and then it will go on overload and blow up. “Hence the need for psychological intervention.”
But it is evident that therapists go into the profession with a lot of unresolved issues and therefore qualify as the blind trying to lead the blind. “It is stupid to think you can fake rapport with clients just because you have a degree. It’s also disrespectful and undermines peoples’ intelligence,” says Mkhize.
Makaula disagrees. “Not all of us get into this line of duty out of the need to cleanse our own issues although no one can deny how therapeutic it is to hear other people’s stories, but some of us got into the fraternity with one mission and one mission only, to make it better for others who have not been as fortunate.”
Makaula says to be wary of psychologists who display too much empathy and relation. “Besides training, anyone who gets emotional with a patient is clearly not professional enough.”
Mkhize thinks otherwise. “A therapist who has or has had issues to deal with is more dependable than someone who only imagines what its like to have issues. Credibility comes from experience. The saying ‘those who cannot do teach’ must have come from that. It is always easier to look at someone else’s situation from outside,” she says. Clean as a whistle therapists are as good as a medicine dispenser in the hospital. Unless you have walked the path, you cannot give directions. - Sunday Independent