Mental health is not just the absence of mental illness. Mental health is about being resilient, having strong relationships with others and yourself and carrying a sense of well-being throughout all of life’s struggles.
When we are emotionally and physically sound, everything else falls into place. We can better cope with stress, tragedy and the demands of normal life.
Helping clients to strengthen their emotional well-being should be a primary goal of the therapist, according to Dana Gionta, Ph.D., of Branford, Conn.
Gionta, an adjunct professor at Fairfield University, is a contributing author to Health Forum Online and wrote the book, “Medical Staff-Family Health Communication in Cancer.” She chairs the American Psychological Association’s “Business of Practice Network” committee to help advance the development of healthy psychological workplaces throughout Connecticut and is a contributing blogger for Psychology Today on topics related to workplace wellness and employee self-care.
Gionta spoke with New England Psychologist’s Catherine Robertson Souter about her efforts to teach self-care in her clinical practice, especially with caregivers, helping clients see why taking care of themselves must take priority in their hectic schedules.
Q: Why self-care?
A: Generally, in society, there is emphasis on physical health and nutrition through an individual’s primary care doctor’s visits, company wellness programs, health programs, etc. However, research indicates that the quality of our relationships, stress levels, mental outlook and cognitive patterns have significant effects on our health and well-being.
My specialty is on emotional health. I work with people to identify if they are making themselves the priority in their lives and help them to put themselves first a little bit more and to set boundaries. A lot of times they are just not able to take good care of themselves and that affects their energy levels, mood, and relationships.
Even though I may be dealing with clients on different issues, divorce or unemployment or work related stress or parenting issues, I find that focusing on the self-care piece makes a huge difference. When they start to make themselves more of a priority and really take care of their emotional health, other areas of their life start to improve. It trickles over to other areas.
Q: You have also come to specialize in working with caregivers. How do you help them not feel guilty about taking care of themselves first?
A: When clients come in and talk about feeling selfish, I try to reframe it into self-consideration. You are there for everyone else and you also need to have consideration for yourself. The best way to be there for others is by taking care of yourself. You then have the energy, the positive attitude and the presence of mind to really be there and have more healthy relationships.
You see this all the time – people who are feeling good in life and who are happy with where they are often are the most giving and generous because they have it to give. They have the energy and the mental and emotional frame of mind to be able to be there for others and be more giving. When you are feeling depleted and overwhelmed in your life, that’s when you really have a hard time giving to others in a way that’s positive. You may feel resentful or do it as an obligation but that’s not fostering or nurturing a healthy relationship.
Q: And that defeats the purpose of being a family caregiver.
A: I was a caregiver myself when my father was dying several years ago. It is hard to imagine how hard it is until you experience it. You deal not only with the physical demands but the emotional effects. I work with caregivers to normalize this. You are going to feel a range of emotions: guilt, fear, sadness, anticipatory anxiety and grief. It’s a roller coaster with its ups and downs and you can be hit with waves of emotion. It’s normal.
The next component is to let them know they are not alone. One recent study put it at 65 million people who are caregiving. They need to reach out for support and to not try to do it alone. I talk with them about what is making it difficult to reach out for help. Many times, they may be afraid or embarrassed or they think it’s a weakness. But, there is a high correlation of caregivers who get sick, because it is overwhelming.
Frequently, they are not aware of the resources out there. A very good one is the National Caregiving Association. And I did a brief radio interview on a show called “Coping with Caregiving,” which is a great resource.
For the self-care piece, I talk to them and encourage them to make their own self-care a priority, to give themselves permission. A lot of my focus is on that piece, helping them to recognize that the way to be the best they can is by maintaining their own health and mood because caregiving can be so taxing.
Q: In many ways, mental health professionals are also caregivers. Besides teaching their clients about self-care, what should a therapist look to do for him or herself?
A: If a psychologist is predominately in a private practice, there are risk factors of isolation and physical demands on your body just from sitting all day. Plus, it is emotionally demanding whatever your role is. I would encourage psychologists to monitor their own emotional health. How are you feeling at the end of the day? Assess your own stress levels and symptoms of burnout. Take breaks, take weekend getaways. How are your boundaries? Are you able to let go at the end of a day and go home and enjoy the rest of the night or do you bring your work home and worry about clients? If you do, then I would encourage you to get some support.
Q: You’re also involved with the APA’s healthy workplace initiative and have written about and teach a continuing education course on the relationship between medical professionals and families of patients. Tell us about those areas.
A: I did my dissertation on the relationship between health care professionals and families and the challenges on both sides. There was a lot of information about communication between doctors and nurses and patients but very little research about the communication between medical staff and family members.
One interesting finding was that the medical staff assumes that if family members had a question, they would come to them. I found that family members have fears about communicating because they are afraid their questions won’t be intelligent enough or that it may take time away from their loved one’s care.
With the healthy workplaces, the goal is to educate companies around what are the best practices that help improve the psychological health of the employees. The research has shown that companies that target those areas show greater employee well being but also better performance and productivity. It is a win-win for the employee as well as for the organization.
By Catherine Robertson Souter