Counsellors may be mental health professionals, but they don’t always ‘walk the talk’, and it’s all too easy to focus on improving the clients’ self-care while neglecting their own.
Counsellors in Singapore are facing burnout and high demand amid the COVID-19 pandemic as more individuals seek therapy to cope with mental health concerns and stress related to employment and family relationships. Representatives from five firms here said the number of new cases had spiked by an average of 20 per cent from pre-pandemic years, with one firm reporting that its client numbers had tripled between August last year and last month, compared with the corresponding period over 2018 and 2019.
Not only in Singapore, but many developed countries such as the UK and USA are also facing the same issues. Brit Barkholtz, a clinical therapist in the USA, worries that the country’s mental health system is unable to handle the additional strain. She explains, “I keep seeing all of these articles saying ‘the next wave of the pandemic will be in mental health’ or’mental health will be the next frontlines’ or ‘a mental health crisis is coming’ and I’m like ‘are we not already there? Because I think we’re already there. Everyone I know has a full caseload and is booked months out. Like if there is an even bigger wave coming, I don’t know how the system handles that when it seems already at capacity. ” Other therapists across the country agree. They explain that there has been a steady and exponentially increasing demand for mental health services throughout the pandemic that has occurred at a pace that has been hard for them to maintain. Dr Lisa Hayden, a clinical psychologist in Southern California, says that her caseload has been larger than it has ever been in 20 years.
“Counselors find it hard to admit when they are struggling.” It’s similar to what I see in first responders and medical staff – there can be a shared culture of being strong and here to help others, “says Fiona Dunkley, senior counsellor and trauma specialist in the UK. “We sacrifice our self-care for the greater cause.”
The counseling centres in Singapore have received more inquiries, not only from individuals but also from organisations, asking about employee assistance programmes. Many clients have also increased their frequency of visits. Due to the results of high demand, many counselors feel burned out. What differentiates burnout from exhaustion, depression, or anxiety, is often the most devastating symptom for therapists—compassion fatigue—the loss of a sense of caring about clients or feeling irritated by their problems. “There can be shame in admitting that we are experiencing compassion fatigue, but we are humans, and we are not protected from stress just because we have therapeutic skills,” says Dr Linda Dubrow-Marshall, counsellor and lecturer in psychology at the University of Salford.
Many counselling centres are now putting a cap on the number of patients each counsellor can see per day and have put in place breaks in between sessions for counsellors to rest and prepare for their next session. Colleagues are also checking in with one another, redistributing cases to prevent burnout. There has also been a demand for more counselors to join the industry as a result of the higher volume of cases. Counsellor Chua Sze Siong from Mindful Bear, a specialist counselling centre for children, advised counsellors to plan, prioritise and take time to pause between their tasks.
He said: “Work is work. At the end of the day, we need to de-role to get in touch with our own feelings.” I make it a point to change my clothes after my session before making my way home. This is my way of preparing myself physiologically to go home and get out of the counselor’s role.