health

"Arduous and overwhelming": I’m a psychologist in 2020 and I’m not OK.


As told to Shona Hendley.

The past few months have been some of the most challenging of my career. Long, arduous, overwhelming. 

Day in and day out, my clients share with me their struggles. Now more than ever, these are difficulties they are facing ‘right now’, immediate challenges due to the pandemic, rather than long-standing issues they had been trying to resolve.

These are so overwhelming that they have often eclipsed whatever the issue was they were referred for initially, or sometimes they have joined forces to equal something much more severe.

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My clients are impacted in every way: financially, relationship-wise, loss of jobs, juggling priorities like remote learning and working from home, self-isolation, the list goes on and on.

I am, of course, here for them, not just because I am paid to do it but because they need me; because I want to help them. It's more than a job: being a psychologist and supporting people’s mental health is a part of who I am. 

But COVID-19 has taken a toll on me as a psychologist, and as a person, because it is becoming increasingly hard to switch between my professional and personal self. More and more often, the issues I hear from my clients are coming with me into my own life, and my own issues and challenges have been triggered as well. 

This is why. 

I want to take you through a standard workday for me during the pandemic.

My schedule is full of pre-existing clients. I’d even booked them in over my lunch hour because I know how difficult it is right now for them. This means my appointments regularly begin at 8am and finish at 7pm, without a proper break. It's exhausting. 

My first client already had severe anxiety before COVID-19 and its subsequent restrictions came into our lives. She has struggled to cope with the drastic changes that have impacted most parts of her life, from her work to her new relationship with her partner, and not being able to go to the gym, which was a major aide in helping her manage her anxiety. 

She shares with me how she is struggling to manage the anxiety when so many elements of her life have changed, she is unsure how to negotiate this. And to be honest, I'm feeling very much the same way. Although I am the ‘expert’, although I know many strategies that can assist in theory, I too am struggling with this in my own world. Of course, it isn't their fault this impacts me - but it does.

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As I hang up the phone (our consults are now conducted through telehealth - in-person sessions have been halted for the time being), I take a deep breath, finish my notes, gulp down some water, pick up the next client file and my phone to dial the next person on my list. 

For the next hour I am mostly consoling a very emotional single mum who has been made redundant due to the impact of COVID-19. She is overwhelmed with a combination of guilt, failure and hopelessness.

These stories are always hard to hear but right now, this financial strain that is all but a step away for the majority of us, is also very real for me - and I am reminded of this by my client.

My husband was also made redundant due to the fallout of COVID-19, so now all the financial responsibility for our family is on me until he can find something else. Although we will be okay for the time being, it is still a weight at the back of the mind, but it's now at the forefront.

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My next few clients share stories of either feeling claustrophobic with the 'stay at home' messages or scared that these restrictions are starting to be eased, and they will need to ‘re-enter’ the world that in their eyes, still poses a great threat to their health and safety. 

You would be surprised at how many people feel this way, or sometimes even a combination of the two. It is never linear, it goes back and forth and changes from session to session.

By mid-afternoon, I'm exhausted in every way you can be exhausted. Being glued to my phone or computer, in the same room inside my house, listening and providing support and advice, while I am in as much need of it myself - but I still have another four clients to go.

When the day finishes, the sun has already gone down, and I move from my home office out into the family room where my husband and children are hanging out. 

For the past 11 hours, other than brief bathroom breaks, filling my water or grabbing a quick snack to take back to my office, I haven’t left the same four walls. 

My brain also feels this way, and I know I'll be back again tomorrow. So no, I'm not OK either.

If you think you may be experiencing anxiety, depression or another mental health problem, please contact your general practitioner. If you're based in Australia, please contact Lifeline 13 11 14 for support or beyondblue 1300 22 4636.

Shona Hendley, Mother of cats, goats and humans is a freelance writer from Victoria. An ex secondary school teacher, Shona has a strong interest in education. She is an animal lover and advocate, with a morbid fascination for true crime and horror movies. You can follow her on  Instagram.

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