American mental-health practitioners need psychological help, a new report says, and they are not getting nearly enough of it. An amazingly prescient article published a few years ago in the U.S. journal Psychology Today and recently reprinted on the Huffington Post lends clinical credence to the commonly held assumption that mental-health workers (and by that the essay's author, Robert Epstein, means psychotherapists, psychologists and psychiatrists like Hasan) have historically suffered from relatively high rates of mental illness. As Epstein, a high-profile clinical psychologist himself, put it, “mental-health professionals are, in general, a fairly crazy lot – at least as troubled as the general population … The problem is that mental-health professionals do a poor job of monitoring their own mental-health problems and those of their colleagues. In fact, the main responsibility for spotting an impaired therapist seems to fall on the patient, who presumably has his or her own problems to deal with.”
Which sounds a bit nuts, doesn't it?
The possible reasons for high rates of mental illness among mental-health professionals are thought to be twofold.
Firstly, people with a history of psychological problems seem more attracted to the profession. There is ample published research back this up. According to Epstein, an American Psychiatric Association study reported that “physicians with affective disorders tend to select psychiatry as a specialty.” And a 1993 study found therapists reported higher rates of family dysfunction, parental alcoholism, sexual and physical abuse and parental death or psychiatric hospitalization than their peers in other professions. Even Anna Freud, the daughter of Sigmund and a respected shrink in her own right, once admitted that her “most sophisticated defence mechanism in life was becoming a psychotherapist.”
The second reason is the nature of the job itself. Most therapists are continually exposed to disturbed, depressed and often violent and/or suicidal individuals. Indeed, it is their duty to interact with them. As Epstein put it, “virtually all mental health-professionals agree that the profession is inherently hazardous. It takes superhuman strength for most people just to listen to a neighbour moan about his lousy marriage for 15 minutes.”