Sunday, June 10, 2012

A Cautionary Tale

This week, I heard a disturbing story about another helping professional. I received a call from a woman in the midst of an emotional crisis. She had sought out the services of another counselor first, a licensed therapist in practice for more than 20 years who had earned the respect of other mental health professionals throughout her career. During their third session together, this practitioner “nodded off” three times. When the client courageously confronted this person and asked for an explanation, the therapist acknowledged her tiredness and disclosed that she had been experiencing physical health problems, been in the hospital the previous evening, and had thirteen client appointments that day that she felt unable to cancel. The client had been in pain before and during the session and felt even more isolated and distressed after this experience.  This therapist had prioritized seeing clients over her need for sleep and follow-up health care. Both she and her clients suffered as a result.

When I heard this report, my initial response was one of anger and incredulity. How could a therapist consider scheduling 13 clients in one day? How could a practitioner think it was okay to see clients when so clearly tired, distressed, and impaired? I had trouble wrapping my head around the situation.

But, then I reflected back on my four years as part of the American Counseling Association’s Task Force on Counselor Wellness and Impairment – and what we learned. We are all somewhere along the continuum from well to stressed to distressed to impaired. However, we are not always clear about where we are on that continuum. In a survey of counselors, people were fairly likely to identify a colleague as stressed, distressed, or even impaired; however, they rarely identified themselves as stressed or distressed and outright denied any signs of impairment.  If we are unable to see or acknowledge our distress, we are unlikely to take the steps necessary to nurture ourselves back towards wellness. Our progression along the continuum towards health or illness does not happen in a moment or from one experience, but, rather, gradually over time as a result of our beliefs, our isolation, accumulating stressors, and the lack of support (or receptivity to support) from colleagues, friends, and family who could challenge us to curb potentially destructive patterns of behavior and self-neglect.

Further reflection on this recent discovery about another professional helper has inspired sadness and compassion for this struggling human being, as well as gratitude for the cautionary tale her unaddressed distress (and resulting impairment) provides us. 

Please take excellent care of yourselves. If concerned about a colleague, let them know. Our ability to help others depends on our ability to help ourselves first. 

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