Choosing Between Helping Others and Helping Myself

Anyone who has been keeping up to date with my story knows that within the past two years I have worked incredibly hard to overcome my struggles with depression. In 2019, I went from wanting to die to feeling like my best self, and I established goals that would allow me to continue on a path of personal growth. I felt so proud of my accomplishments and level of motivation, and I felt inspired to continue working toward feeling mentally and physically healthy.

Fast forward to now, and I have to admit that I have reached a small speed bump in the road. In December 2019, I excitedly accepted a promotion from outpatient therapist to crisis intervention specialist at the agency that I am employed. I chose to continue seeing several outpatient clients part time, because I experienced some difficulty letting go and thought I could handle the workload. This means that I am currently working about 12 hours per day, 5 days per week. While I love what I do and often feel inspired through helping others, I am also ready to admit that I am finding myself increasingly frustrated.

I have always excelled at time management and have taken my professional responsibilities seriously. Throughout the past few years, I have been passionate about balancing my professional responsibilities with my personal needs, and I actually got to a place where I was incredibly happy with myself. I felt mentally health, focused, and determined to continue working toward becoming my best self.

Let us first acknowledge that progress is not always a forward motion and that we are almost guaranteed to experience back slides (after all, we are all human….. I think). The Wellness Warrior is a space in which I want to share my growth and be transparent with my struggles, and I wouldn’t be doing this site or myself any justice if I didn’t express my own frustrations.

I think within the past several months, I have slightly lost track of my main goal: To feel wholly healthy. I have been so focused in being there for my clients that I haven’t been present in my own life. Lately, I am mentally exhausted to the point where I’m having trouble focusing on personal relationships and interests. I’ve done minimal work toward my previously established goals and have not indulged in many of my preferred activities (as some may notice from my minimal updates to this blog).

Yesterday, I found myself calling out of work just so I could go outside for a hike and enjoy beautiful weather, and that is when I truly realized the severity of the issue. If I am working so much that I’m feeling I can’t enjoy my life without calling out of work, that is a huge issue.

I haven’t been taking the time to practice as much meditation, and I’ve noticed how my own thought patterns have reverted. My mind has been spinning out with my first reaction to events, which often times is irrational. I am less patient with others and with myself.

With all of this being said, I am struggling between choosing to help others and help myself. I love the work that I do, but I also have to acknowledge and consider when I am giving too much of myself to others and not enough to myself. I am finally ready to admit that I need to take a step back from my professional endeavors in order to better focus on caring for myself and being an active participant in my own life.

And this is where my Wellness Warriors coming in, because I have always struggled to say no when it comes to my career. What tips do you have with establishing professional boundaries? How can I empower myself to advocate for my own needs? How can I remind myself that, where my clients want to work with me, they don’t need to work me to achieve their goals?

The Wellness Warrior’s Guide to Getting Through a Not-So-Happy Holiday

The holiday season is often viewed as a period of joyous celebration with family and friends. The world comes alive with music, smiles with acts of charity, and celebrates togetherness. For some, however, this time of year can trigger feelings of stress, anxiety, and depression. In a survey by National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI), 64% of those surveyed confirmed being affected by the “Holiday Blues,” while 24% reported the holidays affect them a lot.

Individuals may experience:

  • fatigue
  • tension
  • frustration
  • loneliness
  • isolation
  • sadness
  • a sense of loss
  • nervousness
  • stress

These symptoms (or increased symptoms, if one is affected by a mental health condition) can be linked to other holiday-related factors as well, such as less sunlight, changes in diet and routine, increased consumption of substances, financial stress related to gift giving, and conflict with family or friends. Although some of these symptoms may be temporary, it is important to identify and practice ways of coping as some of us seemingly trudge through the holidays.

Here are some tips for managing your mental health throughout the holiday season:

Go to Your Therapy Sessions

The holidays are busy, and the idea of brushing off a therapy session in order to cram in an hour’s worth of holiday errands can be incredibly inviting. However, it can also create more stress and frustration. Being able to pause and reflect is important in maintaining mental health, and the holidays may bring up difficult emotions or experiences that are important to process.

Find a Positive Way to Honor Those Lost

The holidays can bring up feelings of grief as we celebrate without loved ones who have passed. Incorporate a tradition that can allow you to remember and celebrate your loved one in a positive manner. Some ideas may be to write a letter, light a candle, share favorite stories, or play the person’s favorite music. Although it may look different, we can still make those passed a part of our celebration.

Stay Active

I know I say this a lot – and I mean A LOT – but I have not found a better stress reliever than exercise. Even if it’s a short walk or 10 minute stretch, take some time to get your blood moving and get those endorphins pumping. This can also be a time for some mindfulness practice, as we can strive to be present with our bodies and minds throughout movement.

Stay organized

During the holidays, it sometimes seems as if the “To Do” lists never end. Make lists, keep a routine, and practice good time management skills. Staying organized can help ease anxieties, develop realistic expectations, and prevent ourselves from biting off more than we can chew.

Do not Go Broke to Show Your Love

Financial concerns can be the bulk of stress throughout the holiday season. Our society puts intense pressure on gift giving as a way to show that we care, which can cause depression, anxiety, and stress for those struggling with finances. If you are struggling with finances, stick to a budget that can assist with money management. If you have very limited funds (we’ve all been there!), the people who love you will understand. Some low cost/no cost gift ideas might include making a CD, writing a poem, printing and framing pictures, doing an activity or an experience, or re-purposing something.

Relax

Spend extra time checking in with yourself to determine what you need to stay stress-free and relaxed. Self care is even more important during times of high stress and feeling overwhelmed.

Play Well With Others

When we spend a lot of time with family it can create tension, specifically when we have differing opinions or turbulent relationships. Make sure to communicate effectively about your experiences and emotions in order to try and make others aware of how you are impacted turbulent relationships or conflict. If you have the time, check out this article titled 5 Ways to Talk About Touchy Topics with Those You Care About to get some ideas on how to make holiday interactions a little smoother.

What No One Tells You About Being a Therapist

A therapist’s office is intended to be a safe, warm space that allows for others to express and process patterns of thoughts, feelings, and behaviors. It’s a place where people go to feel better. As a helping professional, I have the privilege of being part of the personal development and growth of my clients. I am deeply passionate about what I do, and I’ll be the first one to admit that I still get goosebumps whenever a client experiences an “Aha” moment. That being said, the mental health profession is not one without challenges.

According to the Philadelphia’s Department of Behavioral Health and Intellectual disAbility Services (DBHIDS), it’s estimated that about 22% of adults in the city are diagnosed with Depressive Disorder, 16% of adult Philadelphians experience frequent mental stress, and 13.8% of teens experience suicidal ideation.

To paint a clearer picture, these statistics mean that in Philadelphia 1 in 5 adults are diagnosed with depressive disorder, and 1 in 7 high school students have reported seriously considering suicide. These startling numbers are not counting the undiagnosed or unreported cases. These rates have remained consistent within recent years, with the exception of a wild increase of opioid-related deaths and ER visits for drug overdoses. With the growing severity of the opioid epidemic in the United States, an already overwhelmed system seemingly only has so much wiggle room before it breaks.

Community Behavioral Health (CBH) is a non-profit corporation contracted by the City of Philadelphia to provide mental health and substance use services to Medicaid recipients in Philadelphia County. There are about 144 Community Behavioral Health organizations in Philadelphia, and I have worked for and with many of them. Although I love the work that I do with clients, working in community agencies has created an entirely new perspective on how therapists and participants are treated among the Community Behavioral Health system….. and I think we all deserve better.

I remember learning about proper ethics and counseling techniques in my graduate program, bright eyed as I geared myself up for a future as a helper. Looking back, it seems so naive for me to have thought that it would be easy. Admittedly, I often wish I could go back to school and pay closer attention to discussions on how to avoid burnout, but sometimes it seems that in the community behavioral health field, burnout is inevitable. Although it would not have changed my choice of profession, I wish I had been more prepared for the community mental health world.

Here’s what I wish I had known:

  1. There are not enough mental health therapists in the community behavioral health system. It seems as though a major theme within the therapist community is the feeling of being overwhelmed by a bogged down system. Community Behavioral Health has an incredible amount of participants in need of mental health care and not enough wo/manpower to provide the quality of care necessary to treat severe mental health symptoms. This means that the large number of participants receiving services are divided among the limited mental health professionals that exist, meaning higher burnout rates for therapists.
  2. There is a major focus on productivity. Full time therapists are given a certain number of clinical hours that they must provide per month, typically called productivity. For example, in my organization, the month of October held 160.63 available treatment hours. I need to achieve 66% of that, meaning I needed to provide at least 106 hours of therapy to meet productivity expectations. If I don’t, I risk being written up. So when we get into the nitty-gritty of things, my work performance is not determined by the quality of therapy I provide, but by the quantity of services I provide. Where I try to validate myself, it is sometimes hard to focus on my successes with clients when I am consistently reminded of “my numbers.” It also makes it more difficult to be understanding when clients cancel, which is often framed as one less hour toward productivity.
  3. Many organizations are turning to fee-for-service. Fee-for-service is pretty self-explanatory. In fee-for-service positions, therapists only get paid for the sessions they complete. This means that if a client does not show up, the therapist will either not get paid, or will get paid a small percentage of what they would have received. Oh, and fee-for-service therapists don’t get paid for the paperwork or outreach they do…. and let me tell you, in this field there is always a lot of paperwork and outreach to do.
  4. Community behavioral health is behind. Think about all of the ethical guidelines, evidence-based practices, and sensitivity training we learned about in school. Now, try to imagine trying to implement those practices in an organization that always seems 20 years behind the present status quo. This isn’t necessarily community behavioral health’s fault. It simply takes time to roll out new methods given the amount of education and training they require.
  5. Sometimes people don’t listen. I feel like I can talk about ethical treatment and appropriate care until I’m blue in the face, and it still doesn’t feel like I am heard. I often find myself thinking of therapists as the nurses of the mental health field– we have an incredible amount of knowledge, have spent years studying the subject, and care deeply about making sure our clients are receiving proper care… and it still feels like we are spinning our wheels just to be heard and respected.

And finally, none of this would matter if we didn’t care. Professionals typically don’t join the mental health field if they don’t care about the well being of others. This makes it even more frustrating when we can see that the overall focus is not on the quality of care we provide, but instead, on the success of the business. Although I can recognize that the business aspect is important, it just does not feel right to put the needs of the business before the needs of people. Helpers feel passionately about the injustices within social systems, because we care about the outcomes of the people we work with. It can be incredibly frustrating to see the above factors as barriers to doing what we love most– helping people.

How to Stay Motivated

My dad always says, “Find something that puts a fire in your belly.” Teenage Me would often roll my eyes, turn up the volume on my latest self-burned punk/emo mix CD and let Travis Barker’s drum beats muffle the unappreciated wise words of my father. As an adult, I can finally understand the sentiment of embracing motivation and passion while pursuing goals. I can also recognize a possibly unintentional deeper meaning here- if left without fuel, fires burn out.

Establishing a goal is the easy part. Hard work comes with actually following through with the steps required to achieve that goal. Maintaining motivation can be difficult, and I always say that building motivation is somewhat of a catch-22. The best way to increase motivation is to just do it (insert Nike symbol here). We feed motivation by reflecting on how we feel as we complete steps toward a goal. Even if the motivation begins as a small flame, we can turn it into a bonfire. Here are some tips for building and maintaining motivation while working toward goals:

  1. Remind yourself of your goals.
    • Write your goals down and display them in a place you look at often. Make sure they are specific and detailed to better organize steps necessary. Take away the “Oh, right, I forgot I wanted to do that” moment and shoot directly for goal achievement. Goals can be easily pushed to the side and forgotten about if we don’t make a point to keep them in our focus.
  2. Discover the WHY.
    • Any task has a number of good reasons behind it. Even small things can be analyzed to find something good. Consider washing dishes. We don’t complete the task for no reason- we complete the dishes in order to have a greater sense of cleanliness and organization (and it helps keep little pestering pests away, but that’s a different blog post). It’s all helpful in creating an image of the bigger picture we are striving for.
  3. Partialize your goals.
    • If we view our goals as one large chunk, it can become overwhelming and cause a person to shut down or give up. By breaking goals down into smaller pieces, we can more easily set targets and obtain a greater sense of achievement. Additionally, developing a deadline for each step can be crucial in maintaining momentum.
  4. Acknowledge your achievements.
    • Track your progress and celebrate benchmarks along the way. Congratulate yourself when you have completing a smaller chunk of the overall goal. Acknowledging progress made toward your goal can propel you forward to the next step.
  5. Be flexible.
    • I have said this so many times that I feel like it should be my new tag line, but: BE GENTLE WITH YOURSELF. If something is not working, be flexible and try it a different way. If you find yourself frustrated, stressed, or overwhelmed, be flexible enough with your deadlines that you can allow yourself a moment to step away and regroup. Achieving a goal looks differently for every person. Don’t just find a process, find YOUR process.

What helps you stay motivated?

Do You Even Gram?

Follow me on Instagram at @the.wellnesswarrior to get a little snapshot of my day-to-day life.

Here are some examples of what you’ll see:

My food experimentation

Me being active

My travels

My feelings turned into cartoons

My face

Urban exploration

My DIY projects

Positivity