Bubble Baths Aren’t Going to Fix This: What’s Really Behind Therapist Exhaustion
A little rejection does the soul good , right? What follows is an abstract I submitted to present at the National Art Therapy Conference. While two of my abstracts were accepted, this one was rejected (I suspect because MANY speakers spoke on this topic at the conference). Regardless, I think it's valuable information about the therapy field and I'm sharing it here.
Art therapists face multiple challenges within the mental health field. Due to licensure struggles and limited understanding of the art therapy profession (Burt, Friedland, & Merriam, 2019), many art therapists struggle to find local art therapy positions. Furthermore, similar to mental health counselors, art therapy positions within mental health organizations, agencies, and group practices frequently require therapists to carry high client caseloads, seeing upwards of six clients a day. Berjot, Altintas, Grenot, & Lesage (2017) note that therapists with high caseload demands are more likely to become burnt out. Vredenburh, Carlozzi, & Stein (2007) also found a positive relationship between hours of client contact and therapist burnout. The emotional and mental demands of being therapists are frequently ignored by the mental health field.
Furthermore, art therapy positions seldom provide an income or compensation that is commensurate with the responsibilities, demands, or educational requirements of the job (Son, 2019). Therapists who can only find part-time positions or jobs with insufficient pay are often forced to piece together an exhausting patchwork of part-time positions, such as being an adjunct professor, part-time agency work, and working for a group practice.
The harmful norms of the field (high caseloads, insufficient pay, and limited options) are further reinforced by detrimental mentalities within the mental health field. As a helping profession, therapy attracts individuals who want to “serve” and “help” others. It draws in people who often place others before themselves, leading to a martyrdom mentality of sacrificing one's well-being for the sake of others (Schuld, 2022). A culture of martyrdom provides false promises that therapists will feel great because they are “helping others,” when they often end up feeling burnt out and resentful. Simpson et. al (2019) found the value of “self-sacrifice” to be one of the leading causes of burnout in therapists.
When feeling burnt out, therapists are encouraged to practice better self-care, while the root causes go unaddressed. Change starts by naming the systems and norms that are hurting therapists, instead of making therapists feel like they are the ones at fault for not being able to carry such heavy loads.
Those in leadership and educational roles can teach therapists to identify the emotional and mental demands of being a therapist and what are appropriate limits (for example, not seeing more than 5-6 clients a day). They can teach therapists how to temporarily cope when they are required to work above those limits. They can also teach therapists how to self-advocate for change and how to decide when it is time to leave a job.
Educators, therapists, and mentors can also talk openly about salary norms within the field and how to negotiate for higher pay and better benefit packages. Bookbinder (2019) found that “business skills” was one of the four primary obstacles that Canadian art therapists felt prevented them from achieving their desired salary.
Educators and mentors can also teach therapists that they can create their own private practices, organizations, and programs. They can provide basic business fundamentals, mentorship, and real world examples so that art therapists feel empowered and knowledgeable to put their business ideas into action when the opportunity arises.
Educators and mentors can also break harmful cultural norms. They can encourage therapists to step out of martyrdom mentalities by honoring their own needs. Most importantly, therapists can promote change by living these shifts themselves. When therapists ensure that their own emotional, mental, and financial needs are met, they flourish as humans and become more powerful, impactful therapists.
Berjot, S., Altintas, E., Grebot, E., & Lesage, F. (2017). Burnout risk profiles among French psychologists. Burnout Research, 7, 10-20.
Bookbinder, S. (2019). The business of art therapy in canada: what are you worth? obstacles and perceptions. Canadian Art Therapy Association Journal, 32(1), 53-59. DOI: 10.1080/08322473.2019.1603047
Burt, H., Friedland, N., & Merriam, B. (2019). You do what? Professional identity in art therapy students. Canadian Art Therapy Association Journal, 32(2), 67-76. DOI: 10.1080/08322473.2019.1672454
Schuld, J. (2022). Stepping out of martyred therapist mentality. Jackie Schuld Art Therapy Blog, https://www.jackieschuld.com/post/stepping-out-of-martyred-therapist-mentality
Simpson, S., Simionato, G., Smout, M., van Vreeswijk, M., Hayes, C., Sougleris, C., & Reid, C. (2019). Burnout amongst clinical and counseling psychologists: the role of early maladaptive schemas and coping modes as vulnerability factors. Clinical Psychology & Psychotherapy, 26(1), 35-46.
Son, Y. (2019). Pros and cons of being an art therapist. Thirsty for Art. https://www.thirstyforart.com/blog/pros-and-cons-art-therapist
Vredenburgh, D., Carlozzi, A., & B. Stein, L. (2007). Burnout in counseling psychologists: type of practice setting and pertinent demographics. Counseling Psychology Quarterly. 12(3), 293-302. DOI: 10.1080/09515079908254099