What happens when the person who is supposed to help others doesn't quite feel up to the task? This is something I've struggled with occasionally, particularly during the more turbulent periods of my life. I find it difficult to offer someone hope when I feel depressed myself. It's hard to be a calming presence when my own anxiety feels overwhelming. It's a challenge to find the energy to connect and engage with other people when what I really want is to hide from the world.
And yet, these are exactly the things I must do. In some ways this is an almost universal phenomenon; most of us are not at liberty to drop out of life just because we feel depressed or overwhelmed. No matter how bad we feel (or for how long), there are things that must be done; we have no choice but to do them. We must somehow set aside our feelings and fulfill our responsibilities.
Still, I think the experience of depression, anxiety, grief, or distress by mental health professionals puts them in an uniquely difficult position. How can a person help others at a time when she herself can hardly function?
After doing some research, I discovered that most mental health professionals do exactly what I do when I'm feeling emotionally overwhelmed: they go to work, do their job the best they can, and go home at the end of the day. Then they get up the next day and do it again. In a 1987 survey of clinical psychologists, 60% of those who responded acknowledged conducting psychotherapy when they felt they were "too distressed to be effective."
Some research suggests that psychotherapists might even be more vulnerable than the general population to experiencing anxiety or depression. Tillet (2003) calls this the "helping profession syndrome," which he describes as the phenomenon in which people are drawn into helping professions because of their own psychopathology. People who have struggled with anxiety or depression in the past have a higher risk than others of experiencing anxiety or depression in the future. Thus, the very factors that influence some people to pursue careers in fields like mental health also make these individuals more vulnerable future psychologically or emotional distress.
So what should the healers do when they themselves are hurting? Of course we should always take care of ourselves emotionally (and physically, for that matter). When we're hurting, we should be aware that we're having a hard time and that we will probably perform less effectively until things get better. Otherwise, we do the only thing we can do: keep doing our jobs, to the best of our ability.