Christina Holyoak, while serving a mission in Albuquerque, New Mexico, was paired with three companions in a row who struggled with their mental health. Holyoak ended up getting to know the mission therapist as she accompanied her companions on the way to their sessions. The therapist told Holyoak he didn’t think she had been put with those three companions in a row by coincidence. That was when she began considering a career in therapy.
“I had never considered that before,” Holyoak said. “I just didn’t think it was a possibility for myself.”
Now Holyoak is a marriage and family therapist. She works in her own private practice in Texas and at a family therapy clinic in Utah. She enjoys helping her clients find healing in their relationships and within themselves.
Like Holyoak, many therapists find their passion for helping people through experiences where friends, family or they themselves, had mental health struggles. Holyoak said she thinks many therapists go through anxiety or stress, especially when first starting out, but the skills they teach clients can be applied to stressful situations in their own lives.
Psychologists and their mental health
BYU psychology professor Chad Jensen said there are many mental health professionals who have had their own struggles. But he said when managed well, therapists’ mental health problems do not affect their ability to help others.
“When mental illness is well-managed, people can still be very functional, very productive citizens,” he said. “That suggests that there is not a limitation on who can become a psychotherapist or a clinical psychologist depending on their mental health.”
Data suggests that many mental health professionals deal with burnout or even with their own psychological struggles. However, clinical mental health counseling student at Gonzaga University Landon Toth said he has seen many students become therapists who have enjoyed therapy themselves.
“You don’t have to be a perfect counselor that knows exactly what to say,” Toth said. “But at the same time, you need to have a good enough grip on your emotions and the stuff you have going on to handle others as well.”
Neuropsychologist Keith McGoldrick said any career can be exhausting, including psychology. Communicating with others when he needs time to relax is, for him, part of coming home from work and decompressing in a healthy manner. “Being on top of that is really important,” he said.
Jensen said developing the skill of separating work and home life is like building a muscle in that it takes practice.
Rita Gardner has had plenty of time to practice her skills as a therapist. She spent 17 years working as a therapist for inmates and is currently the Asia area mission therapist. When asked if her work in mental health exhausts her, she said, “Nope, it energizes me. I really enjoy helping people. It makes me feel good because I’m helping someone.”
Holyoak also said she can separate her work from her home life. When she feels anxious, she said she recognizes her thoughts and questions them, advising future therapists and psychologists to do the same. “Be compassionate with yourself,” she said. “It’s really normal for all of us to feel anxious at times and feel depressed.”
Tips for improving mental health
Psychology students and professionals learn tools to improve their mental health, including physical, emotional and spiritual coping mechanisms. For example, Toth initially felt drawn to counseling because of a Church leader who taught healthy physical habits as a tool to study better.
“I think that sometimes we discount the importance of actual brain health,” Toth said. “That is making sure that you’re taking care of your brain, making sure that you’re eating, making sure that you’re sleeping.”
Jensen also said a healthy lifestyle can prevent or treat mental health issues. Exercise, sleep and healthy relationships are all components of mental health. Exercise, for example, can have as much of an anti-depressant affect as anti-depressant medication.
As a mission therapist, Gardner focuses on the spiritual and mental factors of improving mental health. She said people get stressed about things they think about often. She also said anyone can tell their brain to stop thinking negative thoughts and replace them with good ones.
“Changing the way we think is very, very important,” Gardner said. “Worrying is wasted energy because you can’t do anything about it.”
To change the way she thinks, Holyoak said she often uses the phrase “It makes sense…” to validate her own feelings. She learns to recognize cognitive distortions such as black and white thinking or generalizations that lead to anxiety.
“I want my clients to know that they’re strong and capable and that they don’t have to be stuck in a box,” Holyoak said. “People really are resilient.”