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Therapist Burnout and Compassion Fatigue is a Crisis inside a Crisis

As the pressures and stresses we all face in the wake of 2020 continue to mount, the mental health crisis that once lurked below the surface can no longer be denied. Nearly one quarter of adults in the US, roughly 50 million people are experiencing at least one mental illness (1)

One of the more pernicious consequences of the increase mental health issues is the strait it puts on mental health professionals. There are simply not enough of them to handle the crisis and we're left with a serious shortage; nearsly half the US population lives in a mental health workforce shortage area (2). As a result, according to the APA, 38% of licensed psychologists are working significantly more hours than they were before the COVID19 pandemic. Several of the therapists I spoke with shared that they are seeing 6-8 clients per day 4-5 days a week with only a few minutes between appointments.

So it's not super surprising that an even higher percentage of psychologists, 45%, reported feeling burned out in 2022 (3). Therapists are on the front line, grappling with clients' emotional distress and suffering day in and day out, so they are continuously exposed to the kind of emotionally demanding situations that lead to burnout and compassion fatigue. The result is a decline in their own personal well being and a depleted capacity for supporting their clients.

Can Mindfulness Help?

Compassion fatigue is known to be an occupational strain for therapists, dampening quality of life leading to burnout and secondary traumatic stress and hampering capacity to offer support for clients. But research has shown that Mindfulness interventions, such as the 8-week MBSR program can reduce both self reported symptoms and biomarkers of stress, burnout and compassion fatigue among physicians (4), nurses (5), and therapists (6).

Mindfulness practice is deceptively simple, surprisingly challenging and undoubtedly worth a try. Often confused with positivity or relaxation exercises, Mindfulness is actually the practice of bringing your full attention, to whatever is arising in the present moment with kindness and compassion. It invites us to fully experience the whole of our experience and teaches us that our ability to manage our attention and awareness is perhaps the most important skill we can bring to ourselves and all that matters to us personally and professionally.

The simple practice of intentionally, repeatedly, patiently and kindly returning our attention to the breath, the body or sound for as little as 15m a day can have a dramatic and measurable impact on a number of ways.

  • Personal Wellbeing: Mental health professionals are not immune to the stress and emotional challenges that can arise from the demanding nature of their work; like all of us, placed under unrelenting stress takes a toll on both the subjective experience of wellbeing and biomarkers of health including immune function and cardiovascular health. Mindfulness practice acts as a protective buffer, mitigating the impact of stress on both body and mind.

  • Empathy and Compassion: Mindfulness cultivated empathy and compassion, which are essential qualities for mental health professionals. By being more in tune with their own emotions and eperiences, they can better understand and empathize with clients' struggles. This empathetic connection can significantly improve therapeutic relationships and outcomes.

  • Enhanced Self-Awareness: Developing and honing self-awareness is one of the main points of practicing mindfulness. A regular mindfulness practice allows you to develop a deeper understanding of your own thoughts, emotions and biases. This self-awareness can prevent countertransference and projection, allowing us to offer more effective, unbiased care to clients.

  • Emotional Regulation: Mindfulness teaches us to notice subtle physical cues that we're stressed and to intentionally work with them rather than reflexively react to the discomfort of negative emotions. This allows therapists to remain safely fully present for clients experiencing strong emotions and serve as the regulated nervous system clients often need.

Practiced regularly, with the structure of a class, the guidance of a skilled teacher and support of a community of others working on developing their mindfulness skills is the best way to get the benefits of a mindfulness practice.

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