Superhuman, emotionally? Psychologists need support too

2 NOVEMBER 2023

Superhuman, emotionally? Psychologists need support too

A Charles Sturt academic and graduate explain some of the challenges around navigating self-care for psychologists and what this means for psychologists and their clients.

Psychologists spend their professional lives caring for the mental health of others. However, this Psychology Week (29 October – 5 November) emphasis is being placed on the mental wellbeing of therapists.

Australia’s mental health systems are in crisis and psychologists are currently working with an increasingly distressed population, especially in rural areas.

Psychologists are in short supply while distress levels in the community are high. Many work long hours with patients within insufficient timeframes embedded in the constraints of government guidelines.

This creates moral stress for professionals who are expected to care for their own wellbeing, while faced with an increasingly distressed client base whose needs extend beyond available resources.

Psychology Week commenced on Sunday 29 October and runs until Sunday 5 November and the Australian Psychology Society (APS) is placing an emphasis on self-care for psychologists.

Two Charles Sturt University experts claim placing psychologists on a pedestal is unrealistic and that psychologists must make sacrifices to maintain their own emotional wellbeing.

Dr Rachel Hogg is a Senior Lecturer with the Charles Sturt School of Psychology in Wagga Wagga and Mr Mark Olsen is a Bachelor of Psychology (Honours) graduate and currently works in a private clinic as a psychologist. He received a High Distinction for his dissertation titled ‘A Qualitative Exploration of the Personal Self of Psychologists’.

Dr Hogg said there are limited answers to questions of how psychologists care for their own mental health because doing so is an increasingly neoliberal practice, bound by what individuals are allowed to express with the frameworks of performative wellness culture.

“Individuals are expected to demonstrate the ways in which they are taking agency over their own distress, drawing on socially acceptable coping strategies like journaling and engaging in hobbies - activities that are especially difficult to maintain for those in high-pressure occupations like psychology,” she said.

“Rather than asking ‘how can a psychologist care for themselves?’ we need to ask, ‘why is it hard for so many to do so?’

“Expressing mental health concerns can have occupational consequences for psychologists in much the same way that receiving a post-traumatic stress disorder diagnosis can have implications for the career trajectory of a first responder.”

Dr Hogg said it is difficult to have open conversations about, or find research on, the mental health experiences of psychologists. But she claims more research is needed on the psychologist, not because of how it impacts their patients, but because their experiences are important.

“If knowledge protected people from mental distress, then we could all educate ourselves out of mental health concerns,” she said.

“We need to be careful not to expect more from psychologists than anyone else when it comes to managing mental health.”

There is a gap in how we are expected to care for ourselves and how care functions and Dr Hogg said this gap is especially relevant to psychologists.

The Australian Psychological Society (APS) code of ethics regards caring for one’s own mental health to be a matter of competence. Mr Olsen said the expectation of the code is that psychologists will monitor and address their own fitness to fulfil their role.

“In order to help others, it is vital to be able to help oneself and to be able to be helped,” he said.

“Sacrifice is made on the part of the therapist … and that sacrifice is made by way of time, energy and emotional labour … as renumeration decreases in relative terms, therapy work will be increasingly performed by those inclined towards self-sacrifice, but self-sacrifice has natural limits.”

Psychologists are fascinated by human emotion, thoughts and behaviour, according to Mr Olsen, who said psychologists often bring their own experiences, or educated reflections on their experiences, into their practice.

Dr Hogg said the public and the APS have a role in ensuring expectations of mental health professionals are upheld, ensuring psychologists are positioned as people as well as professionals.

“We need to value them as professionals and as individuals and ensure they do not become commodity items in therapy delivery,” she said.

Mr Olsen said we should not be governed by the notion that psychologists have emotional superhuman powers. While psychologists are trained to engage in self-care known to contribute to improve mental wellbeing, he said informed self-care is only the beginning.

Being informed includes effective acknowledgement of one’s own humanity and understanding the appropriateness of external sources of support.

Dr Hogg and Mr Olsen both agree there are varying perceptions on the motivations and mental health status of psychologists.

Placing psychologists on a pedestal is unrealistic and undermines the motivations that led them to a helping profession, according to Dr Hogg.

She said the perception that psychologists enter the profession to understand themselves is revealing of what we expect from professionals. Mr Olsen agreed, saying it is simply not a realistic expectation.

“The prevailing, almost instinctive understanding is that psychologists should be free of distress,” Mr Olsen said.

“Reliable informed knowledge tells us that this is simply not universally possible.

“It is important not to overly buy-in to the persona of the professional psychologist who has emotional superhuman powers.”

There is much debate about how much personal information psychologists should share with patients, with arguments to support ‘self-disclosure’ as beneficial for both psychologist and patient.

Dr Hogg notes that it is important that psychologists do not feel pressure to self-disclose, though there are instances where disclosures can be powerful, humanising, and ethical, building rapport and understanding between client and therapist.

“It is important that therapy does not function as an outlet for mental health professionals to discuss their own concerns, but rather that any disclosures that are made are carefully integrated into the therapeutic approach,” she said.

Compassion fatigue and burnout are serious concerns among psychologists and Dr Hogg said it is important practitioners are given time, space, and support. Self-care has benefits, but engaging in it does not directly lessen the demands of the profession and in some instances, the pressure to perform self-care can contribute to the workload of the psychologist.

Media Note:

For more information or to arrange an interview, contact Nicole Barlow at Charles Sturt Media on mobile 0429 217 026 or news@csu.edu.au

Photo caption: (Inset) Mr Mark Olsen and Dr Rachel Hogg

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