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Burning for You: Burnout in the Mental Health Field

Illustration for article titled Burning for You: Burnout in the Mental Health Field

I work as a counselor for teenage girls with level two trauma, autism, behavioral disorders, or sometimes all three. More often than not, when I tell people that first
meet me about my job, they wince. The next comments usually include some variants of the following:

“Oh wow, that’s tough....”
“I couldn’t do that......”

Or, they can include something along the lines of the most offensive comment I received
in response;

“Why would you work with spastics?”

The girls and young women I work for are wonderful young women with many fantastic qualities. I work with nurturers, explores, dancers, and with a young lady who will smile and say that she wants to be President of the United States. Although these young women have trauma or mental health challenges, they do not define them. They have hearts and dreams.

That being said, my job has it’s rough days, just like any other job. I have been spat on. I have been punched. I have been scratched. I have had to sit beside a girl when she receives heartbreaking news. I work nights. I work weekends. I work holidays. I barely get paid a living wage. To make up for this fact, I must work overtime, which is penciled in between my full Master’s class schedule. Regardless of these facts, I love my job. When the girls and I make breakthroughs-no matter how small- everything is worth it.

Before I am maligned for this (trust me, I know what I have signed up for), I want to discuss Mental health provider burnout.

Academic studies about hospital and community mental health provider burnout abound. Ways to combat burnout include actively addressing problems (such as asserting yourself or expressing your needs), asking for new job duties if you have been doing the same tedious tasks, or a taking vacation. Of course, if you’re ready to run screaming from your place of work because of various frustrations, these pieces of advice are easier said than done.

Mental health workers also have to combat vicarious trauma. This often occurs after a provider hears about various harrowing, disturbing, and inconceivable traumatic episodes from their clients. Although the provider did not witness these events, the provider suffering from vicarious trauma will none the less amalgamate characteristics of their client’s experience into their own functioning.

The concept of putting your own mask on first, prior to the mask of a loved one, during an airplane altitude emergency is often used as an analogy to mental healthcare providers wanting to protect themselves from burnout or vicarious trauma. I myself have found this to be most effective. I also find reframing to be helpful, in both clinical aspects, and in real life.

For instance, dragons are often perceived as being blood thirsty, bad tempered beasts that hoard gold and slay heroes. Now for the reframe: one of my kids at work once said that I was a dragon because in stories, dragons protect valuables and treasure, just like I protect them. What a reframe!

I live for days like these. Having a girl who did not know how to identify U.S. coins successfully tell me what a quarter is and how much it is worth,

when a girl remembers a SAT word I taught her,

or when one of the kids uses a coping mechanism successfully,

makes all of the bad days melt away, and everything worth it.

Healthcare providers and healthcare workers, I would love to hear you sound off in the comments below about your own burnout coping mechanisms!

No HIPPA food though. Get it? You feed HIPPA like a Hippo with violations! I’ll see myself out.....

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