Is it Safe to Seek Help when You’re a Helper?

According to medical science website, Medscape, a doctor was (allegedly) fired due to seeking psychological help for burnout. The doctor, an American anaesthetist Dr Peddada, was notified by the employing hospital that his offer of employment was being rescinded after he requested a 1-month medical leave due to burnout in his previous role.

A significant part of my clientele is made up those in the helping professions. Doctors, Nurses and Psychologists, who attend to patient health and wellbeing needs every day, still require their own help sometimes. Besides the usual barriers to seeking treatment (time, money, fear of the unknown), there are additional issues that are associated with helpers seeking and receiving help.

The media and researchers have highlighted the pressures on healthcare professionals. A recent study by the Australian National University found that psychologists report high rates of depression and burnout. Similar rates of burnout exist amongst doctors.

As the case of Dr Peddada demonstrates, there may be legal risks involved in seeking help when you are a health professional. I don’t believe that these risks outweigh the costs of working past burnout date. Not seeking help carries legal risks of their own. Even the article on Dr Peddada noted that he had started to make mistakes due to burnout. He could easily have made a mistake which led to a more significant legal issue, than the one he faced for seeking treatment for burnout.

Most healthcare professionals that I treat report emotional concerns about the treatment process, not legal concerns.

Emotional Barriers to Seeking Help

Fear of appearing incompetent is a massive fear for healthcare professionals. Many people who have strived and achieved in life have some dose of the imposter syndrome. And more still have a vicious Inner Critic. The Critic is often kept at bay by working harder and “faking it until you make it”. A treating psychologist holds up a mirror to their client, and the Critic judges harshly. It feels easier to leave your shame in the shadows rather than open up to a stranger.

Fear of appearing weak is another major concern. Part of being a psychologist, doctor or nurse is playing a role. The role is to be the rock for patients who are vulnerable and weak. This “rock” persona can start to become a safety blanket for many healthcare workers. Flexibly removing this protective armour is important for treatment but threatening for the health-worker’s identity.

Difficulty trusting is another barrier. I’ve had quite a few psychologists see me via telehealth from out of state. When doing so, they have all told me something along the lines of “psychology is a small world in my city…”. These clients are concerned about reputational damage and forming complex relationships.

A final concern is that the treating psychologist challenge their workload or professionalism. The truth is many health professionals are workaholics and they don’t like someone pointing out that they might be overburdening themselves to their own detriment and to that of their patients.

I think that all of these concerns have a certain amount of validity. I can certainly relate to each one of these concerns about seeking treatment. However, the benefits of seeing a psychologist, when you are a psychologist massively outweigh the negatives. I can attest to this from personal experience.

Physician Heal Thyself

When I found out that I was accepted into a Master of Clinical Psychology program, I felt enormously honoured and privileged.  From time to time, when I start to feel jaded about my job, I try to bring up the feelings I felt when I was accepted into, what was at the time, a very exclusive degree. I couldn’t complain, I was lucky.

I was in my 30’s when I career transitioned to become a psych. Having lived a life of having an ordinary job, I didn’t take my opportunity for granted. I worked extremely hard during my studies and afterward. I always had doubts that I would get jobs or that clients would come, but they did come, and they stayed.

And I rarely showed my insecurities. No one wants to see a psychologist who is exceedingly doubtful or lost. I learnt to fake it until I made it. But faking it took its toll. Luckily, I sought help.

Seeing a psychologist myself made me more balanced, more open and more clearheaded. The worries and insecurities that I carried were normal and became far less of a burden for me once shared. My professionalism and clinical skills also improved from the modelling I observed. I became more empathic and insightful of the patient experience.

I believe that it should be part of all healthcare professional’s experience to seek therapy. To help stay sane, and to sustainably help.

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