Therapists, The Forgotten Victims of Trauma

Therapists listen and help, but what about THEIR mental health?

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I have spent almost thirty years speaking to therapists about the traumatic events that occurred when I was child. When I started out I didn’t give the feelings of these brave people much thought. I would expect them to always be available to me. The fact is, many therapists quit their positions as sounding boards, burned out on the horrific stories they hear, and the frustrating efforts they make to help traumatized people out of the abyss.

They are the forgotten victims of trauma.

This article is written to help bring to light what therapists go through listening as they do to severely traumatized clients for eight or more hours a day, four or five days a week, year after year.

Can You Walk In Their Shoes?

Suppose you are a therapist and you are seeing a client who was severely traumatized in childhood. The client enters your care but doesn’t trust you. Everything you suggest and all your training can’t change anyone else, but you do your best to help this client see reality as much as possible. You invest a lot of your own mental power into this person, and hope to hell they will not only get better but will survive.

You sit with this horribly injured person once or twice a week, and listen to the stories of what they went through. You have young children of your own, and the thought of them being injured the way this client was stirs your heart. You are only human, and the feelings of anger and intense sadness you feel can be overwhelming. You weep openly before your client when told some of the things that were done to them at such a young age, but your client doesn’t weep with you. They are out of tune with the emotions that they should be feeling when they tell these horror stories. This must be so lonely.

Therapists Face Hardships

Can you imagine the emotional strain on that therapist? Can you feel at all the frustration they must feel? How can they disconnect from an intense session where the client relates to them the tragedy that was their childhood?

Even the best trained and most dedicated therapists have limits. They are, as I already stated, only human. They have a life outside the office, they have families, they have children and go to church. Yet, they are dedicated to helping their clients find peace.

It Must Be Very Straining

Then there the clients who don’t survive. It is an unfortunate fact that 20-30% therapists will have a client commit suicide during the time they are being treated.

I had a therapist who had this happen to her. The day her client died she came to my apartment to follow through with an appointment even though she had just received news that one of her clients had died at their own hand. I knew immediately something was wrong as she was totally distracted and on the verge of tears. Finally, I stopped our discussion and point blank asked her what was wrong and what had happened. She began to weep and told me she had lost a client to suicide. I sent her home. I knew she was overwrought and was shocked that she hadn’t canceled out appointment after receiving such news.

She was so dedicated to helping me that she chose to sacrifice her own mental health and her need to grieve, to see me. That wasn’t a healthy choice, not at all, but she felt keeping our appointment was that important.

The Price They Pay to Help is Very High

The rate of divorce for therapists is much higher than the general population. One can see why. If you were married to a person who returns home each evening mentally exhausted but unable to tell you why, how would you feel? They are distant, tired and only partially connected to what is happening at home because they are mentally trying to leave work at work, but finding it almost impossible.

Therapists are People First.

They can’t simply turn off their emotions after seeing a client. The best training does not prepare you enough for the strong emotions you feel when confronted with highly traumatized clients.

If a client sees a therapist for an extended time, say for years, the therapist and the client form a bond that isn’t easily broken. It isn’t friendship, that isn’t what a therapist is, but perhaps something even deeper.  Then one day the client that you have invested so much of your time and emotions in disappears. They suddenly quit showing up for appointments and you never hear from them again.

I had been seeing my first therapist Paula for over seven years when my husband became ill and we had to take bankruptcy. I went to my next appointment after our court appearance but was told by the business office that I could not see Paula. Not even to say goodbye.

Years later, fifteen to be exact, I returned to Paula’s office. We had a joyful reunion but later after I had told her what had occurred, she told me she thought I had become angry with her and quit. The clinic had not told her the reason for my not returning to her office. I could tell when she related these thoughts that my sudden disappearance after so many years had caused her pain. I will never know exactly how much because she was much too professional to relate that, but I had a deep attachment to her, and I refuse to believe those feelings weren’t reciprocated.

God, that must have been so hard!

Vacations are Vital

When I began therapy I would become furious at my therapists when they took a vacation. How dare they leave me and not be available should I need them! Only later did I understand that vacations are critical for a therapist’s mental health and their ability to help their clients. It’s a time to reflect and regroup. It’s also a time to mend their relationships with their families.

My hat is off and my respect given to the brave men and women who work as therapists. They sacrifice so much, yet are very careful not to let their clients know the strain their speaking about their lives is causing. They care and that is the biggest and hardest thing of all.

Try to Remember!

The next time your therapist is ill and calls in sick or the clinic calls you to cancel an appointment because they will not be in without an explanation, try to remember. Please, try to remember they are people first and that their absence in no way reflects on how they feel about you.

Therapists are indeed the forgotten victims of trauma. Their lives, their relationships, and their mental health all suffer the grief and pain they hear from the people of which they have grown fond. They grow fond of clients that they see often, and feel their pain and sorrow. Yet, they are forced to separate themselves from the horror stories they hear and attempt to leave it at work.

I cannot imagine the strength it must take not to leave the listening profession.

Yes, Therapists are the Forgotten Victims of Trauma.

“The shock of any trauma, I think changes your life. It’s more acute in the beginning and after a little time, you settle back to what you were. However, it leaves an indelible mark on your psyche.” Alex Lifeson

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