As of this writing, according to the Johns Hopkins Coronavirus Resource Center, over 541,000 Americans have died from COVID-19. There has also been widespread economic devastation. But the emotional toll of the pandemic may be incalculable. Anxiety, depression, substance usage, domestic violence and suicidal ideation have all increased during the pandemic. Existential forms of suffering such as loneliness, meaningless, survivor’s guilt and grief are pervasive.
As vaccines become more widespread, we are hopefully able to adjust and return to more normal ways of living. But even good change can be hard. Going into a store or seeing family and friends again can feel scary and surreal. And mental health professionals such as psychologists, psychiatrists, social workers and therapists are on the front lines of these emotional vicissitudes.
Because the very nature of our work requires strict standards of professional confidentiality, mental health workers often labor in obscurity. A national survey of psychologists’ experiences in the journal “Professional Psychology: Research and Practice” found that 61% of psychotherapists met the criteria for clinical depression, and this research was published in 1994, a time of comparative societal calm and normalcy. As a result of the pandemic, I’ve known several colleagues who have either retired or changed careers rather than keep working in the field of mental health because this work now just feels too hard and too close to home.
To share a few personal examples, seeking any small semblance of comfort any way he can get it, one professional therapist told me he keeps a small stuffed animal on his lap, which his clients can’t see, when he provides tele-therapy. Several colleagues have shared that they have visceral, physical, trauma-like reactions when they now begin their workdays. I was talking with a group of therapists recently who all stated that they felt fine, but by the end of the conversation each one admitted that they were drinking more as the pandemic wore on.
For professional healers it can often be easier to help others than to help ourselves. When you work in the healing arts it can be very hard to take off your badge, to stop working, because helping others is our purpose, it’s what we do. And while mental health workers may be experts at self-care, we often now find ourselves experiencing the exact same challenges as the people we are charged with helping.
There can also be a stigma in admitting you need help when you work in this field. You might worry how your colleagues will view you if you admit that you are struggling. It’s important to remember that it is normal to struggle, especially when you comfort those who are suffering. If we’re not very careful, it’s easy to absorb and get stuck in the pain of others. When you care for others professionally, day in and day out, it is essential to take care of yourself, especially during a pandemic!
For myself, I’ve tried to maintain my commitment to exercise and meditation. We hold stress and trauma in our bodies, and movement and contemplative practices are not just emotionally healing, they are physically healing. I do find myself working more hours, so as a result I have been intentional about making meditation an even more integrated part of my life.
Meditation is putting our thoughts and emotions on things that are skillful for how we want to be in the world. So when I am doing the seemingly mundane tasks of daily living such as sweeping the floor, emptying the dishwasher, or folding the laundry, I let my activity be a focus of mindful engagement. I try to let the word machine of my brain slow down, and I focus directly on my breath and the thing I am actually doing, as opposed to thinking about some far away politician or mind-numbing form of social media. The average adult brain weighs 2 to 3 pounds, yet it consumes 20% of our calories. Now more than ever it is essential to slow down and let our brains rest.
On a practical level I try to do a minute or two of meditation or yoga between seeing each of my clients. I’m a member of several professional consultation groups. We urge our clients to get support, yet we are all wounded healers; to help heal others, we also must heal ourselves.
To be sure, suffering and adversity can make us stronger. I feel the work I do now is more important than ever. Many clinicians feel the struggles of our society have helped them deepen their knowledge and professional skills.
As individuals we may all have a deeper sense of gratitude and purpose as a result of enduring this period of our lives. And as a society, my hope is that we emerge as a more compassionate and inclusive society committed to overcoming the social inequalities that the pandemic has revealed. Mental health clinicians are a bedrock of societal change. If you’re a mental health clinician, please know that as you take care of yourself, you are also taking care of society.
Dr. David Zuniga is a clinical psychologist in private practice in Austin, and he is also an ordained Zen Buddhist priest; his website is a free, interdisciplinary source of support: drdavidzuniga.com.