Mental health professionals across the board are feeling burnt out and exhausted after a year of offering care through a global pandemic. But younger clinicians, and especially clinicians of color, report feeling burnout more than their older white counterparts. They’re also less likely to recommend their careers to someone else, or someone younger than themselves.
It’s no secret that the mental health industry saw explosive demand for services during the pandemic, which certainly has played a role in practitioner burnout—juggling longer hours and fuller caseloads. There are simply not enough practitioners to go around. So if most mental health professionals are seeing an increase in workload and demand, why are younger clinicians of color experiencing the worst of it?
According to burnout coach Mona Eshaiker, LMFT, it goes beyond just a heavier workload in a terrible time. Eshaiker explains that younger clinicians—especially clinicians of color—are set up in a system that’s arguably designed to burn them out.
Burnout Culture Starts Early
Burnout isn’t limited to any one age group. Professionals of all ages can, and do, experience burnout. But according to Eshaiker, it makes sense that younger clinicians feel it more. In order to progress in the field, she explains, you already have to be doing pretty intense work, often for little or no pay.
Eshaiker spent the early years of her career working with incarcerated women and victims of sexual assault—both high-stress environments. “I loved the work I was doing there, but I was doing it basically for free,” she says. “And a lot of clinicians do that. The field in general has normalized this idea of paying your dues, and working with these populations that are in dire need for little or no money.”
When considering why younger clinicians might be feeling more burnout than their older counterparts, this culture is part of the answer. With so many prelicensed clinicians working in treatment centers and other long term or 24-hour facilities, Eshaiker says there’s a foundational cultural issue.
“That ‘work yourself into the ground’ mindset gets normalized by our supervisors,” she explains. “One of my early supervisors literally had a twitch in her eye. She was at that point of stress. And if you had parents or other role models who were constantly stressed out, all of this becomes just what we know. So as we move further in our careers, this is what our foundations are.”
Younger clinicians, even those who are now working in private practice, have been working against this mindset as they’ve tried to navigate an incredibly traumatic year. But for clinicians of color, they’re up against more than that.
For Clinicians of Color, Stress Compounds
Across the board, younger clinicians have been dealt an unfair hand. They need to work in these high-stress environments to gain experience and to try to earn a living, and there’s not much they can do about it except wait until they get their license. For clinicians who share common identities with their clients, the trauma experienced during the course of the pandemic has been amplified.
“A lot of my clients come to me because of my identity, and that’s something that happens for other clinicians of color and their clients as well,” Eshaiker says.
“Clients want to feel a sense of psychological safety in the room with you. Maybe they don’t want to explain certain things, and all that makes perfect sense. But for us as clinicians, seeing our queer clients or clients of color being retraumatized over and over again is really hard, because we’re people too. There are certain experiences that will trigger things from our own lives.”
Another critical thing to remember here, Eshaiker goes on to say, is that the pandemic didn’t actually change anything—it just amplified issues that were already here. “We already knew a lot of the problems that the pandemic brought to the surface,” Eshaiker says. “We already were facing racism and discrimination. The pandemic just amplified what was already there.”
The difference now, she goes on to say, is that there’s more attention paid to these issues by the rest of the population after the year everyone has experienced. “So we’ve seen a lot of retraumatizing and retriggering. We all have to constantly be reminded, ‘Oh, right, there are people who hate me just because I’m me,’” she says.
This reality puts clients and clinicians of color alike in a place of constantly being on guard, and being in that psychological state all the time is to constantly be stressed. “Stress compounds. It’s not just one thing,” Eshaiker says. “So especially for clinicians of color, watching all these things as our clients are also experiencing them—that stress has been compounding for a long time. Of course we’re more burnt out. It’s already been this way for us.”
Helping people manage stress and burnout is one of the main focuses of Eshaiker’s practice, and there are things that individuals can do on their own to relieve some of these feelings. But self-care alone seems like an inadequate tool in the face of this problem, and according to Eshaiker, the change needed is a systemic one.
Where Do We Go From Here?
The past year has shown that all clinicians, regardless of age, are in an impossible situation when it comes to relieving burnout. “The cultural expectation of paying your dues doesn’t encourage break-taking of any kind,” Eshaiker says. “There’s this idea that because you’re a therapist, you don’t have your own needs. You have it all figured out. That mindset starts early, and that’s a problem.”
To combat this, Eshaiker says, “We need to normalize taking breaks—real ones, where you fully disconnect. We need to make it something we don’t feel guilty or judged for, and start expecting and encouraging it from ourselves and our peers.”
She goes on to say that it’s especially important for supervisors to model this behavior for the people they oversee. “If you’re in a position of power in any way, it starts with you, and I mean that literally. Let the people you manage see you taking breaks. If you’re able to, mandate that people take a certain amount of time off. We need to forcibly create a new normal around this.”
Helping professionals have an especially hard time taking time off, and while Eshaiker recognizes that it can be more difficult than for some other professions, it’s not impossible, and it needs to be a priority. “Even if you have a full caseload and you think you can’t take the time—you can, and you need to,” she says. “Burnout doesn’t happen overnight. It’s not a vacuum. And when you’re already at that burnout phase, you need to be entirely out of the office. You need to be somewhere completely new.”
Not only does this help combat burnout, she says, but it actively makes you a more well-rounded and creative person. “When we’re mentally and physically exhausted—and stuck in that stress cycle—our brains naturally go into tunnel vision. We can only focus on that one thing, which is why we’re less creative when we’re stressed,” she explains. “You’ve got to give your brain and body a rest because that’s when all the creative stuff happens. All kinds of things will come to you if you just pause and give yourself time to be completely disconnected.”
The past year has had all clinicians stuck in that stress cycle, regardless of identity or age. As the world continues to reopen, people will be tempted to say things have gone back to “normal.” But when this is the normal that young clinicians and clinicians of color have to return to, going back to the way things were shouldn’t be the goal. It’s clear there are larger issues at stake here, too big to be addressed by self-care and vacations alone. But giving clinicians the space to prioritize their own health and well-being might be a good place to start.
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