Being A Psychotherapist: Things School and Books Can’t Really Prepare You For Part One: Mental Fatique

iStock_000024633998Medium-744x418To be a psychotherapist takes years of school and a lot of reading and writing about various aspects of human behavior. Many students fresh out of school with not much patient contact or real therapeutic hours under their belt, think that they fully know what it is like to be a therapist. They don’t. While school and books definitely prepare you for sounding like a trained therapist, nothing but real experience and hundreds of hours of patient contact, can prepare you for even the basics of what it’s like to be a therapist.

Many people who see me doing my job say, “I want to do that” and I never discourage them. I just tell them that if they are doing it from their hearts then they should pursue it. If they are doing it because they think it pays well, then they should seek another career. If they are doing it because it looks easy, then they should definitely seek another career. Even students who have spent years in undergrad and then graduate school are disillusioned and thus disappointed when they actually start seeing clients of their own. A few, those meant to truly be in the field, will love it, even when it’s frustrating. Others will hate it, but stay because they’ve fooled themselves to believe they are supposed to be therapist, and most end up becoming very bad therapists… or program directors. A large portion will leave the field altogether and seek employment that is more fulfilling and they should.

So what are the things that school and books can’t prepare you for when it comes to being a psychotherapist? Well I will cover one topic every now and then instead of trying to cram a top 10 list, but we’ll start with mental fatigue.

Being a psychotherapist is exhausting. Sure it’s not the same as lifting bricks all day, but it’s a different kind of exhaustion. People will say, all you do is sit and listen all day, how can that be exhausting. Well actively listening, being thoughtful, sustaining alertness, using your memory and paying attention to someone for 50 minute stretches throughout the day is very draining. Not to mention the stories you hear and have to process. Stories that are sometimes so sad that you have to hold yourself back from tears, or stories that trigger counter-transference issues because they remind you of some part of your own life.

There is also other things that make it taxing such as doing notes, scheduling, dealing with insurance companies and billing. There’s also that part about managing risks, having to figure out how much of a risk someone is to themselves or others. My main job right now is assessing suicidality in inmates who have exhibited a risk for suicide. It can become very stressful.

On top of that, sometimes your friends and even strangers who meet you and find out you’re a psychotherapist will treat you differently.

Strangers will either be fascinated and want to tell you about their problems, or a “friends”, or they will not talk much out of fear that you are always analyzing people. We do know how to turn it off, well at least turn it down. Your friends will most likely have you as their default free therapist, yet will not offer you much advice/help since “you’re a therapist, you should be able to figure out your own problems.” Oh, I’ve heard that too many times.

It can be exhausting because being a therapist, once you’ve done it long enough, becomes who you are. You don’t leave it behind at 5pm, even when you think you do. It’s always there with you and if you aren’t careful and don’t take care of yourself, it will drain you.

The link below is to a very well written article that details some of the hardest and most exhausting parts about being a therapist.

The One Thing Every Psychotherapist’s Partner Doesn’t Get.

Tips for College Freshmen

istock_000004524452small-520x487It’s that time of the year again when students of all ages are headed back to class, but for college freshmen, this time of year can be full of excitement and loads of anxiety that can send them packing back home or spinning into a dangerous cycle of poor choices.

A few of the high school clients I worked with last year are feeling this same since of angst so I wanted to share some of what I have shared with them about creating an environment for success their freshmen year of college.

Live Like a Broke College Student

Sometimes when students go off to college they forget that they may not have the constant source of income they had while they were home, and yet there is more things that they want to do that cost more money.

College is expensive. Take advantages of free things, there are usually a lot of free things on campus from food to clothing.

Students have to learn how to live with less funds which means learning how to budget, given up some of their favorite meals or even activities. They will have to learn how to survive with less, which is a challenge, but it can be fun and creative. College student are notorious for coming up with inexpensive and free ways to have fun and that is something that should be embraced if you don’t want the lack of finances to be an added source of stress.

Don’t Be Afraid to Ask for Anything, Especially Help

A lot of times college is the first time young people are given total responsibility over themselves and many don’t know how to handle it. They think being an adult means you don’t have to ask for help, but that is where they get into trouble.

In college, you are treated like an adult. No one is going to remind you to read assignments, or to work on your paper, or to study. It’s up to you, so students need to learn to ask for help by being proactive in their relationships with their professors and not just thinking that the professor will let them know if they are not doing well in a particular course.

Building a support system is also crucial so that you have people you can turn to for advice, support and encouragement. A good support network should include upperclassmen, a professor they trust and look up to, as well as any administrators they feel they can turn to for advice or guidance.

Also, being part of a support group is extra helpful for students who need extra support or counseling, which is generally free on most college campuses. Asking for help is not about appearing weak, it’s about preparing for success.

Get Involved

When I speak to the college freshmen who are having the most difficult times adjusting, nearly all of them have done nothing to actually get involved or to get engaged on campus. It’s important to be open minded to both new experiences and people. Making real connections is one of the best ways to feel like you are apart of the college environment.

Many of the young people I work with who are college freshman come from the inner-city and sometimes feel out of place on college campuses where the majority of the student body doesn’t look like them. I always encourage them to join multicultural clubs and student support services in order to help them adjust and begin to engage with the entire student body.

At the same time, I let them know that it’s okay to take time to adjust and for them to not feel so overwhelmed if after a week or two they still don’t feel quite comfortable. The thing is, I want them to avoid feeling lonely which can lead to numerous issues including isolation, depression, poor grades and even dropping out of school.

Time Management

It’s good for college students to have some routine and a schedule that they can follow, but not a schedule that is so rigid that it doesn’t leave room for fun and other activities. Having a schedule such as when to study, when to workout, etc., can bring some order to a time that may appear chaotic.

This includes making time to take classes that they can manage and also allowing themseves to take a couple of fun classes like yoga or basketball, after all, it may be the last time they can take fun classes before they get into the really heavy stuff.

The first year of college is filled with lots of sometimes contradicting emotions, but being prepared to face those challenges will make it that much more exciting and fulfilling as well as prepared to accomplish all of their personal, social and academic goals.

Support Groups for College Students

College can be a huge transition for students that usually leads to personal growth, but at times may lead to feelings of loneliness, anxiety and depression.

Many students who I’ve worked with in high school and have graduated and gone off to college, have kept in touch, expressing at times their struggle to adjust or to stay balanced.

Usually I’ll give these students some words of advice or resources I think will help them get back on track, but sometimes they need more attention than I can provide and that’s when I often refer them to a support group on their campus.

There are usually support groups for almost any and every issue a college student may be dealing with including:

Depression and Anxiety

Sudden independence, academic pressure, financial worries and adapting to a new environment are all things that can lead to stress and anxiety, especially among freshman.

Stress and anxiety can lead to depression which can cause a host of other problems including dropping out of school and substance abuse. Most college campuses offer groups such as “Personal Growth” or  “Transitioning into College”  to serve students with these needs.

There are also grief and loss support groups for students dealing with the loss of someone.

Self Esteem

In college, people often start discovering new things about themselves, things they may like, dislike, feel uncomfortable with or are not quite sure of  how to deal with their feelings. This is also the time some people have their first sexual experiences either with the opposite sex or with the same sex.

Some may feel like they don’t fit into the student body on campus for various reasons.

These groups help people suffering with self-esteem and identity issues figure those things out in a safe, confidential environment.

Most college campuses offer support groups, for example, for the gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender community and for people who have been sexually assaulted. The University of Central Florida, for example has a group called Sister Circle, which gives support to women of color.

Recovery

There are also groups for students dealing with drug and alcohol problems in order to help them stay on the track of recovery. In recovery, it’s very important that a person has a good support system, which is what these groups attempt to provide.

Here is an example of support groups offered at the University of Central Florida and similar groups are found on most college campuses:

  • GLBQ (Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, Questioning) Growth & Empowerment
  • Sexual Assault Survivors
  • Transgender Bender Group
  • Authentic Connections
  • Women’s Group
  • Creative Connections
  • Exploring your Family
  • Grief and Loss
  • Sister Circle
  • Building Social Confidence

Generally once I’ve connected a student to a support group on campus not only do I feel relieved, but they also tend to improve and make new friends. I’ve always been a proponent of support groups for everyone in need because I know the positive affects they can have on their members.