When the world shut down due to the COVID-19 pandemic, mental health professionals did not. They continued to show up, work, pivot to offering their services online and run their businesses during unprecedented times. With many taking care of their households and families through months of racial unrest, a charged Presidential election and a global pandemic that raged on.
“I have experienced the most extreme amounts of burnout during my time as a therapist in the midst of the pandemic ,” said Pavan Basra, a Registered Associate MFT – Mental Health Therapist and Empowerment Coach who works with women of color, young adults and teens. “I feel as though I am constantly experiencing death and rebirth.”
The COVID-19 pandemic only magnified the struggles of an already exasperated health care system, and with inevitable suffering and loss that occurred, therapists agreed that they’ve been busier than ever.
A recent report from the Kaiser Family Foundation found that four in 10 adults reported symptoms of anxiety or depressive disorder since March 2020. This is an increase from one in 10 adults who reported the same symptoms from January to June of 2019. Talkspace, an online therapy company, reported a 65 percent jump in clients since mid-February of 2020.
“A lot of data has shown that many more people have received mental health support as a result of the pandemic, which is great,” said Andrea Brogano, a licensed mental health care counselor and Founder and CEO of Therapy Connection and Achieve With Andrea. “I believe this is because globally, we have gone through one traumatic event together. When I get a client in session they will say that they are here because of the pandemic and then will unload years of trauma.”
“When I get a client in session they will say that they are here because of the pandemic and then will unload years of trauma.”
With many Americans seeking therapy now more than ever, we were curious how therapists were holding up. We spoke with five licensed health care practitioners and all of them said they’ve experienced some form of burnout, compassion fatigue or exhaustion in the last year.
Providing an ‘essential’ service
Mary Beth Somich, a licensed therapist and owner of a group private practice in North Carolina said she chose this career because she saw first-hand in her rural hometown how limited access to mental-health support can have devastating effects.
“Therapy is considered an essential service, and can be life-saving, and with this understanding, I bent my boundaries to see more clients than I ever had before,” she said. “I was also in my third-trimester of pregnancy at this time and realizing that the pace I was operating at was not sustainable. I decided to hire another clinician within my practice to send new referrals to. This allowed me to re-establish better boundaries and re-prioritize my own mental health so that I could show up fully for my clients.”
And re-establishing boundaries was a common theme.
Amy Deacon, a Clinical Social Worker and Founder and CEO of Toronto Wellness Counselling said the pandemic gave her a new found admiration for the simple joys the pandemic took away. Things like a morning at the coffee shop, holiday dinners or grabbing drinks with friends. So, she began to cut out time during her day to meditate, exercise and practice gratitude. She said it was helpful, but not enough.
“Eventually, I booked off a few weekends and then a couple of weeks, where I completely disconnected,” she said. “During these times, my focus was just to rest my body, heart and mind. I needed a complete break.”
For DeAvila Ford, a Licensed Clinical Social Worker, CEO and Lead Therapist of Ask DeAvila Sadé LLC said she too began taking larger amounts of time off to just clear her head, and even started seeing a therapist herself.
“I believe that every great therapist has a therapist,” she said. “I can check out of therapist-mode and into a client. I also began working fewer days and fewer hours per day. I take a one-week vacation every quarter.”
The pros and cons of remote therapy
Therapists and their clients lost many tools they once had due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Somich found 75 percent of her clientele immediately switched to virtual sessions, something she said she was grateful was available, but limiting at times.
“As a therapist, I believe there are therapeutic advantages to meeting in-person” she said. “For example, the ability to read the body language and energy of the client in front of me.”
And mental health professionals agree that this last year has provided them with a better understanding of what support they need. This could be having their time-off requests granted, or having insurance companies provide less restrictions on who qualifies for coverage.
The costs of getting help
Some insurance companies have already made moves to scale back coverage of telehealth services, and therapists often have to be the liaison between insurance companies and clients. Ultimately, making for a confusing and frustrating experience for everyone involved.
Ford said she’s seen these financial challenges impact her clients firsthand, and some have had to stop therapy all together because they could no longer afford it.
For Basra she offered a superbill for reimbursement for all her clients for their insurance, which she says has been a blessing for the majority of those who see her. “I do my best to offer lower fees to those who cannot afford my fee, and really want to work with me, and I always connect others who need help to feasible counseling services,” she said.
But Brogano says the insurance companies that need to step up with reimbursement rates, as well as allowing for services for clients and increasing mental health coverage in general. “Oftentimes we have clients, I have had a few over the pandemic, that had asked for sessions for pro bono or for $20 a session,” she said. “I think this is a part of the mental health stigma. That clinicians should be paid little to nothing or that the services should be free or volunteer-based because they are a helping profession.”
Holding on to hope
But despite the laundry list of challenges, therapists remain hopeful and passionate about what they do. Somich said this pandemic has forced people to slow down and focus on their mental health for the first time in their lives. And for many people this has allowed them to sit with new feelings and emotions, and therapists say this is what they’re made for.
“It can be the most amazing experience of our lives,” said Deacon. “So many of us are raised in environments where we do not learn about emotions, how to regulate our challenging emotions, as well as the toll our emotions have on our body. Therapy is so beneficial — you just need to find the right therapist that fits with you.”
Before you go, check out some of our favorite mental health apps in case you need a little extra self-care TLC: