Combat Burnout and Stress with These Self-Care Tips for Behavioral Health Professionals

At the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, clinical healthcare workers were widely celebrated as the heroes they are – individuals working tirelessly and selflessly on the front lines to provide much-needed care for those who needed it most. 

While nurses and physicians were recognized for the invaluable care they provided, mental health professionals never received quite the same demonstrative celebration that emergency room doctors and nurses enjoyed. Yet, as the pandemic evolved and long-term effects of loneliness, isolation, depression, and anxiety began to emerge, the need for mental health services has skyrocketed, leaving counselors to shoulder much of the collective burden.

For these healthcare providers, it was not just COVID-19 patients who needed care. It was everyone

At the height of the pandemic, 40% of adults reported symptoms of anxiety or depression compared with 11% pre-COVID, according to the Association of American Medical Colleges. In 2020 alone, 1 in 10 adults reported struggling with depression. Two-and-a-half years later, the rate is still double pre-pandemic levels. The World Health Organization reports that the pandemic caused a 25% increase in prevalence of anxiety and depression worldwide. 

It’s no wonder that depression, burnout, and anxiety have increased among mental health professionals themselves, as they work to provide the very best care for their patients. A 2021 survey by the American Psychological Association shows that psychologists reported increased demand across all treatment areas from the previous year. Respondents disclosed the greatest increases came from treating anxiety disorders (84%, up from 74%), depressive disorders (72%, up from 60%), and trauma- and stress-related disorders (62%, up from 50%).

This means mental health professionals are stretched thinner than ever before, a trend that reflects the healthcare workforce at large – and it’s affecting their own mental health. According to a recent study by the National Institutes of Health, 93% of health care workers are experiencing stress, 86% reported experiencing anxiety, 77% reported frustration, 76% reported exhaustion and burnout, and 75% said they were overwhelmed. Prevalence is increasing so rapidly that the US Surgeon General released an alarming advisory on the state of healthcare worker burnout and mental health, strongly urging that improvements be made. 

Unfortunately, the mental health and well-being of our caretakers is taken for granted or is overlooked. All too often, therapists and clinicians look outward and provide care, rather than seek it for themselves. For some, there is the flawed self-expectation that as an expert, they should deal with their mental health problems on their own. 

As we celebrate National Depression and Health Screening Month, we’re doing a deep dive on self-care for mental health professionals. We’re offering tips on how to make sure you and your staff are getting the care you need—so in turn, you have the capacity to give your patients the care that they need.

Raising National Recognition 

All October long, observance for National Depression and Mental Health Screening Month is intended to raise awareness around mental health, the prevalence of depression, and the urgent need to ensure accessible and affordable mental health screenings for all. 

While the prevalence of depression is high and rising, many suffering from symptoms go undiagnosed or untreated. A recent estimate suggests that nearly 60% of individuals with depression do not seek professional support. Another study cites the economics of mental health: personal finance and access barriers prevent over 75% of people residing in low-to-middle income countries from receiving care. 

On October 6th, National Depression Screening Day encourages anyone experiencing symptoms of depression to take a free screening. It’s an essential first step in understanding symptoms, receiving care, and taking marked steps to improve symptoms and quality of life. Mental Health America offers an array of free, easily accessible screening tools that help individuals start conversations that can change their lives. 

How to Care for Yourself and Your Staff

In the spirit of encouraging screenings, awareness, and care this National Depression Awareness Month, we’ll shift the focus inward. 

Mental health professionals have likely been trained to put their patients first, and self-care is often not a top priority. But amidst today’s overwhelming demand for behavioral healthcare, taking care of yourself isn’t just a “when I have time” thing – it’s imperative to ensure you provide yourself with the same level of care with which you’d treat your patients. Similar to the instructions a flight attendant gives when they tell you to put the oxygen mask on yourself before helping others, it’s time to move self-care to the top of your team’s to-do list.

  • Practice self-compassion. Even in the best of times, we tend to be our own toughest critics. So now is the time to be proactive about developing a self-compassion practice that ensures you are treating yourself with kindness, acceptance, and forgiveness – especially during challenging moments. Kristin Neff, PhD offers helpful tutorials, workshops, and guidelines that integrate meditation, promote tolerance, and encourage resilience. If you oversee a behavioral health practice, consider covering the cost of a weekly workshop for your staff each week. 
  • Prioritize your closest relationships. With such an influx of patients to care for, it can sometimes feel like you don’t have any leftover bandwidth to keep your own personal relationships strong. To keep yourself fulfilled, carve out time to spend one-on-one with the people you love. And we don’t just mean family – keeping strong connections with friends is important, too.
  • Feel your emotions. While you may be giving this advice to your patients 10 times a day, this is definitely medicine you should be taking, too. Noticing and expressing how you feel, instead of repressing your emotions, helps build resilience and well-being both in the moment – and for the long run.
  • If you need help, get help. If the pandemic has taught us anything, it’s that we are all in this together. What affects one of us affects all of us. So if you’re at a point where all the balls you’ve been juggling are threatening to fall, it’s time to seek the help of a fellow mental health professional. And if you’re the person leading a team of therapists, make sure you’re offering psychological “first aid” to your staff.

How to Care for Your Patients

One small silver lining of the pandemic’s effect on mental health is an increased awareness of how emotional issues can impact a patient’s life, and a decrease in the stigma of seeking help. So there’s never been a better time to be proactive about educating your patients about the effects of depression, and the treatment options that are available. National Depression Awareness Month is the perfect time to make a more focused effort.

  • Send your patients an email. Email is still an incredibly effective patient outreach tool. Take full advantage of it this month by sending your patients an email that educates them on depression, offers real-world tips, and resources for treatment. The National Alliance on Mental Illness has an abundance of great resources to pull from.
  • Get active on social media. Social media is where patients spend much of their free time, so meet them where they are by posting on Instagram, Facebook and other platforms more than usual this month. Not sure what to post? The NIH has a comprehensive library of “copy and paste” graphics you can use. 
  • Open a drop-in clinic for a depression screening. Just like drop-in flu clinics that are so prevalent this time of year, a free drop-in depression screening clinic is a great way to get patients in the door. Not only does a drop-in clinic make it easier for busy patients to find their way to you, the “public” aspect of it helps reduce treatment stigma.

The demand for mental health treatment is forecasted to remain very high for the foreseeable future. To  ensure your practice can meet the challenge, bolster your organization’s financial and clinical operations with an EHR designed especially for practices like yours. To learn more about NextStep Solutions, contact us today.

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