The hidden toll on mental health professionals

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Advocating for mental health and encouraging people to seek help is more common than ever, but what about the mental health of those supporting others’ mental health? 

Graphic by Kenzie Akins.

Having a stable mentality is crucial to well-being. Counselors and therapists play important roles in helping their clients heal, develop beneficial coping mechanisms and maintain a healthy state of mind; yet, in doing this, mental health professionals encounter many mental health hurdles of their own. Webster offers counseling services through the university’s counseling and life development department, which includes interns from across St. Louis. 

I hear about the worst parts of people’s lives, their most painful experiences, their cruelest self-judgments, and I see what it does to them. I care deeply about my clients and connect with them, and through doing so, I feel some of their pain,” Stephanie Lessmeier, a licensed professional counselor at LifeWork LLC, said.

Burn-out is another concept that appears to be common in the mental health field, which is why it is crucial to indulge in self-care, according to Madi Mertz, a counseling intern at Webster University Counseling and Life Development and a counseling student at the University of Missouri-St. Louis.

“[You] take on all this emotional labor and put so much of yourself in that you get burnt out. There’s been a really strong emphasis since day one on self-care, finding ways to balance and to avoid burnout,” Mertz said. 

Oviya Sougoumarane is a counseling intern at Webster University Counseling and Life Development and a Master of Social Work student at the Brown School of Social Work at Washington University. She described how she can put maximum effort into serving her clients but still feel unsatisfied. 

Sometimes, I think about how I can serve my clients better, and [I feel] like there’s always more I can do,” Sougoumarane said. 

This can lead to a rabbit hole, Sougoumarane said, which can result in low confidence, put pressure on oneself and contribute to poor mental health. 

Sougoumarane copes with this stress by confiding in her supervisor, talking to her fellow counseling interns and practicing self-care.

Sougoumarane plans to set proper boundaries to prevent work from taking a toll on her mental health. She wants to be in a healthy headspace so she can better serve her clients. 

Mertz protects her mental well-being by leaving work at work. Although she is not always successful, she finds it helpful to preserve her mental health, prevent distress and learn balance. 

Mental health professionals have taxing jobs, but the benefits can be just as rewarding. 

It can take some work to stay mentally well while in this career. While there’s a balance of positives and negatives, overall, the positives of my work far outweigh the challenges,” Lessmeier said. “I love seeing my clients grow, recover, and learn new ways of being in the world.”

Counselors are needed now more than ever. According to the National Institute of Mental Health, “It is estimated that more than one in five U.S. adults live with a mental illness (57.8 million in 2021).” 

“Counselors can focus on self-care, our employers can do their part to provide support and what we really need is for our societal systems to change to provide a liveable wage,” Lessmeier said. 

Mental health professionals can transform lives but need support along the way.

“For our own well-being and that of our clients, the wellness of mental health professionals needs to be talked about, and creative solutions need to be explored,” Lessmeier said.

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Lauryn Pyatt
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