Laverdière, O., Kealy, D., Ogrodniczuk, J. S., & Morin, A. J. S. (2018). Psychological health profiles of Canadian psychotherapists: A wake up call on psychotherapists’ mental health. Canadian Psychology/Psychologie canadienne, 59(4), 315-322.
Patients prefer to work with psychotherapists whom they perceive as psychologically healthy and satisfied with their lives. Psychological health and satisfaction in therapists may be related to their ability to manage their own reactions to clients (countertransference), as well as to their ability to maintain personal and psychological well-being. However, the work circumstances on psychotherapists may compromise their psychological health. Patients often present in ways that may result in emotional reactions in therapists, such as self-doubt and frustration. Also, therapists may develop vicarious or secondary traumatic stress when exposed to patients with a history of trauma. Such emotional stressors may overwhelm therapists and contribute to burnout, distress, and lower quality of life. Previous research found that difficulties in therapist mental health may lead to emotional disengagement, patient early termination, and a lowered therapeutic alliance. Large-scale international surveys indicate that 87% of psychotherapists were involved in psychotherapy at some point in their careers. This suggests that many psychotherapists understand or have experienced the hazards of their work. In this survey of registered Canadian psychotherapists, Laverdière and colleagues were interested in the self-reported psychological health of psychotherapists. The sample included 240 psychotherapists who were mostly women (78%) and psychologists (84%), with a mean age of 42 years (SD = 11.66), practicing psychotherapy for an average of 13 years (SD = 9.42), and working primarily in independent practice (40%) or in an institutional setting (40%). Most identified their primary theoretical orientation as psychodynamic (31%), CBT (31%), integrative (22%), or humanistic (15%). Using a standardized measure of burnout, the authors found that 22% of psychotherapists were experiencing high levels of emotional exhaustion (with a further 20% in the moderate range), and 12% experienced a high level of depersonalization. Only 8% could be classified as having probable serious mental health issues and life dissatisfaction. The authors then developed statistical profiles of psychotherapists using latent class analysis. Using these profiles, 35% of psychotherapists were characterized by moderately high levels of burnout and distress and moderately low quality of life. A further 12% of psychotherapists had very high levels of burnout and distress and very low quality of life. Those with healthier profiles tended to be more experienced (B = .14, p = .008, OR = 1.15) and to have lower perceived workload (B = -1.10, p = .006, OR = .33).
One in five psychotherapists in this survey were experiencing high levels of emotional exhaustion, and another 20% were in the moderately high range. Emotionally exhausted professionals are at higher risk of making errors, depersonalizing patients, and becoming emotionally exhausted. Psychotherapists at higher risk would benefit from organizational and therapeutic interventions. Peer support groups may help to alleviate some of the distress, as would regular consultation and supervision that partly focuses on countertransference and managing the stress of working with traumatized patients. Psychotherapists need to be aware of the risks involved in having a high workload, which is a well-known risk factor for poor mental health at work. On the positive side, greater experience as a psychotherapist may be a protective factor. Experience may bring with it more self-confidence, greater emotion regulation skills, and a better ability to manage countertransference.