Nfld. & Labrador·Opinion

How therapist burnout takes a toll on our mental health system

"There’s not enough of me to go around," writes registered psychologist Laura Casey Foss, and that creates a lot of stress for those providing mental health care and on the system itself.

'Our system is so broken,' writes Laura Casey Foss

Registered psychologist Laura Casey Foss says many mental health workers feel burnt out, forcing some to resign and leaving more holes in the system. (Submitted by Laura Casey Foss)

This column is an opinion by Laura Casey Foss, a registered psychologist in Corner Brook, N.L. For more information about CBC's Opinion section, please see the FAQ.

I read an article in Forbes magazine one recent Friday afternoon about therapist burnout.

I opened the article on my phone just as I was collapsing, exhausted, on the couch after a week filled with trauma therapy sessions, consultations, reports and administrative work.

The irony wasn't lost on me.

It's not easy to talk about this. I told a friend recently that I really worry that my friends will think negatively of their own therapists if they hear that I've had a hard week.

So I try to couch my rough week sigh with an enthusiastic "but I love what I do, I feel honoured to do it!" Perhaps then they won't worry that their own therapist feels burnt-out too.

The last thing any psychologist, social worker or counsellor wants is for their client to feel that they may contribute to their therapist's rough week, or think that their therapist is somehow less capable of providing them with the support they deserve.

But the truth is, while I love helping others and I consider it a privilege to see people at their bravest, I am so tired.

Believe it or not, a slow week

I've had six new requests for therapy this week alone. It's a slow week, believe it or not. That's six people that I have to say no to. And while the task of holding space for others' pain is sometimes taxing, it's not nearly as taxing as saying no almost every day.

Even with boundaries in place, like a message on my voicemail indicating I'm not accepting new referrals, I still get requests. I still have to say no to someone whose heart is breaking, who is desperate for help. I won't even get into the nearly two years some people have been on my wait-list for a space that's just not there.

Foss's therapy support dog, Zulu, sits in her office. (Submitted by Laura Casey Foss)

I have excellent coping skills and employ great boundaries — I eat well, I exercise, I have my own therapist, I prioritize my friends and family and I very rarely see more clients than I know is healthy for me.

The issue is not my coping skills. The issue is that there's not enough of me to go around.

It's worth noting here that I work in private practice, not in the public system. I think there's a misconception that if you're paying out of pocket for the service, that the service is there to be had.

Unfortunately, just as there are wait times in the public system, there are wait times in the private sector too. For specialized services, such as eye movement desensitization and reprocessing for trauma, those wait times get even longer.

Our society needs more helpers, and more help for the helpers.

Our system is so broken. Some people have funding but no option for a readily available therapist. Others have no funding to pay for the help privately. Our public system is short-term-oriented and often does not offer the complex trauma care that people need.

The mental health workers on the inside of the public system are overworked, bullied and even shamed for not finding a way to do more with less resources. I've heard from dozens of friends and colleagues across the country who've described the same feelings of burnout.

And many of our best and brightest end up resigning — unofficially, nearly 20 per cent of psychologists in one Newfoundland health region have left their roles in the last 18 months — leaving holes in the system and further shortages.

More recruitment, training needed

Our society needs more helpers, and more help for the helpers. More mental health specialists, clinicians and well-trained, trauma-informed therapists so there are enough to go around, so they are less likely to burn out, so they can access their own therapy services that can enable them to just keep swimming.

Watch | Mental health should be an election issue, according to this panel assembled by Here & Now: 

Mental health is an election issue. This panel outlines what they want to see changed

CBC News Newfoundland

3 months ago
Kristi Allan, Dr. Janice Hubbard and Dr. Nazir Ladha speak with Here & Now's Carolyn Stokes 8:10

I don't know what the solution is exactly, but it has to involve recruitment and training right at the front of the line.

It has to involve realistic expectations by employers around how much any one person can give. It has to involve all mental health clinicians working to their full scope of practice. We need to retain the senior, well-seasoned psychologists.

Organizations right now are struggling to recruit. There are few clinicians to hire and there is very little support from employers for the necessary two-year supervision period for new graduates.

This conversation has been happening for a long time in the psychology world.

It's time it started happening elsewhere too — in homes, in organizations, in government.

It sure as heck isn't going to be fixed with another Bell Let's Talk day — because when those people finally reach out and ask for help, the sad reality is that a large percentage are going to be turned away.

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Laura Casey Foss is a registered psychologist and certified EMDR therapist working in western Newfoundland with her therapy support dog, Zulu.