Trigger Warning: Before you begin reading, please be aware this blog post contains material on self harm and suicide.
I am observing a music therapy session where my supervisor is singing “The Calming Song” to a client. The lyrics go like this:
Some of the choices given are to stretch, roar, give yourself a hug, or blow out candles (take a deep breath). As I’m listening to this catchy children’s song, I realize how much I need these choices for myself. You may say, “Well, you’re an adult. You should know how to calm yourself down.” Or you may ask the golden ticket question: “How can you be a music therapist helping people when you need help yourself?”.
I am no stranger to having “feelings too big and too loud”. In other words, I am no stranger to having experienced mental health difficulties. Am I allowed to be a music therapist? Can I be a professional in a field that I could also be a patient in? I truly didn’t know the answer. While we learn about mental health in regard to our clients, this topic felt controversial for myself. When becoming a music therapist, other topics are easily discussed: it’s acceptable that I’m not confident on the piano, they’re sure I will get better at playing with practice. You can expect to feel overwhelmed during internship! It will get better with time and experience. They say it gets better.
What it if doesn’t? What if this feeling is deeper than being overwhelmed? I find myself in unfamiliar territory. Stuck on a topic unexplored and never discussed. I begin my investigation and type in the search bar:
According to The Association for Psychological Science, approximately one third of people will experience some sort of mental health difficulty, anything from anxiety to depression, at some point in their life (2022). The assumption is that this number only includes patients of therapists and the general population – not the therapists themselves (Fuller, 2022). Research on the mental health of therapists is minimal, however, a few articles reference a study that currently stands as the largest peer-reviewed study to investigate mental illness for different psychologists in a graduate program. When 1,700 psychology faculty members and trainees completed an online survey regarding whether or not they had ever experienced “mental health difficulties”, 80% of those participants reported that they had (Devendorf & Victor, 2022, para. 7). 95% of participants who stated they had experienced mental health difficulties also reported it does not affect or interfere with their profession. Just as a mental health diagnosis does not define clients, it does not define therapists.
The stigma around mental health illnesses is likely the reason more studies like this haven’t been done. Mental health is complex. We’ve come a long way from “mental hygiene”, the first known term identifying it in 1843 (Mandell, 1995, para. 1). Even with research and progress over time, mental health is often misunderstood or unaccepted all together. It is terrifying to think about sharing the thoughts and feelings that have consumed my brain, let alone actually speak about them to colleagues. Instead, I display my strengths. I display how much I’m learning and growing as an intern; showcasing my rate of success as a steady upward slope over time. Would I be judged if I shared that I actually felt more like a roller coaster going up and down? Research shows the stigma around mental health can play a role in not being hired or promoted. However it can also be met with understanding and allow for accommodations (Devendorf and Victor, 2022, para.15-16). When I mentioned to a supervisor I was writing a blog on this topic, I was worried I would be told it is a sensitive subject to write about and therefore not approved to continue: Instead I was met with genuine interest and encouragement. They even said “I think that’s a great topic for your blog because I don’t think it’s talked about enough.” It’s reasons like this that make me feel a little bit more comfortable and confident to open up to my place of internship about my roller coaster journey.
So why become a therapist if you need a therapist? David Lopez, a practitioner for 15 years who was interviewed by The Guardian, put it simply, “Typically, people who want to become therapists have an interest in connecting with people” (Hackman, 2017, para. 8). Coming from my own experience and my decision to be a music therapist - he’s not wrong! My shared love for music and helping others are what initially led me to this profession. Coincidentally, everything that I’ve learned so far about helping people has also helped me with my own struggles and life challenges. Elena Lister, a private practitioner for 30 years, shares how her struggles led her to this profession in an interview with The Guardian. After her six-year-old daughter passed from leukemia, Lister sought out therapy, but it was unsuccessful in meeting her needs. She decided to specialize in grief and loss therapy to help others in a way that she was not able to help herself. “Shockingly enough, therapists are also people,”she jokes (Hackman, 2017, para. 13). Therapists may have access to resources not everyone has the privilege of receiving, but that does not mean they are immune to feelings of hurt and pain.
In my search for answers about the mental health of therapists, I came across a TEDx video (this video contains material on self-harm and suicide) of Stephen Lewis, a professor of clinical child and adolescent psychology. Dr. Lewis discloses vulnerable moments from his own life, sharing what ultimately led him to specialize in the study of “nonsuicidal self-injury”, also known as self-harm (The Skeletons in My Closet, 2015). Dr. Lewis does not hold back on the comments people made to him and the painful conversations he had with himself during this difficult time in his life. He talks about how his experiences and the desire to win his own personal battle are the reason he is who he is today. That’s why this video was so important and significant to me. It is an honest conversation about the battle that is mental health.
I admire Dr. Lewis for his bravery in sharing what it’s like to feel so alone. I find comfort in being able to relate to his story. I may not be ready to share at his level, but I am proud of myself for everything I've written and shared today. No one should feel pressure to reveal their struggles if they do not want to. My hope is that we as a society let go of the stigma around mental health and create space for people to start having these honest conversations. It can feel daunting to speak up, but therapists can take the step they encourage their clients to, and seek the help they need.
So, I found my answer. Yes, therapists struggle with their own mental health. Yes, therapists have therapists. While these articles and studies gave me meaningful insight and information, I realized none of them focused on my field in particular. I headed to the search bar again and typed:
I found nothing.
What I did find were countless papers on the benefits of music therapy for mental health. While I’m glad to see music therapy has such a profound presence online, I couldn’t find any information on the mental health of the music therapist. I hope other music therapists find value in this topic, and hope that more resources exist in the future. For now, if you are a music therapy intern like me, or a practicing music therapist that resonates with anything I’ve written here – you are not alone.
As I come to a close, I find myself a little less unsure and a little more at peace. I type my last question into the search bar:
Association for Psychological Science. (2022, August 8). A Paradox in the Field: Mental-Health Disorders Among Psychologists. Psychological Science. Retrieved September 29th, 2023, from https://www.psychologicalscience.org/news/mental-health-disorders-among- psychologists.html
Devendorf, A. and Victor, S. (2022, April 29). Psychologists are starting to talk publicly about their own mental illnesses – and patients can benefit. The Conversation. Retrieved September 29th, 2023, from https://theconversation.com/psychologists-are-starting-to- talk-publicly-about-their-own-mental-illnesses-and-patients-can-benefit-177716
Fuller, K. (2022, April 21). Mental Health Among Mental Health Practitioners. Psychology Today. Retrieved September 29th, 2023, from https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/happiness-is-state-mind/202204/mental-health-among-mental-health-practitioners
Hackman, R. (2017, April 19). When therapists also need therapists: ‘Suffering is not unique to one group’. The Guardian. Retrieved October 6th, 2023, from https://www.theguardian.com/society/2017/apr/19/therapists-go-to-therapy-prince- harry-mental-health
Mandell, W. (1995). The Realization of an Idea. Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. Retrieved October 7th, 2023, from https://publichealth.jhu.edu/departments/mental-health/about/origins-of-mental-health
TEDx Talks. (2015). The Skeletons in My Closet. YouTube. Retrieved September 29th, 2023, from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=G17iMOw0ar8