The best way to feel good is to do good. Not only does altruism help the world, but it has the added benefit of being therapeutic for oneself. For psychologists, doing pro bono work, sharing both time and expertise, meets both professional ethics guidelines and can contribute to a self-care regimen.
“In the general principles of the APA Ethics Code, it states that, ‘psychologists strive to contribute a portion of their professional time for little or no compensation or personal advantage,'” said Sue Kim, Ph.D, New Hampshire Psychological Association secretary and membership committee chair.
“While we know that the general principles are aspirational, I would argue that psychologists doing pro bono work can often result in benefits to the person receiving the services, the person giving the services, the field of psychology, and society at large.”
Perhaps the easiest way to start would be to offer sliding scale payments for underprivileged patients.
“For people who really need therapy but cannot afford it, obtaining pro bono services can be literally life-saving,” said Kim. “There are always more people needing treatment than service providers available. “
There are also many ways to step outside the office, which can bring its own benefits. Our experts suggest starting with your own interests and organizations that fit with your specialty.
Schools, day cares, veterans’ organizations, immigrant relief groups, and many others have needs they cannot meet on their own. First responders, churches, synagogues and mosques all may need help for their staff, to better help them support the people with whom they work.
“Look around your own community to see where the needs are.” said Jeff Zimmerman, Ph.D, ABPP, co-founder of The Practice Institute, a business and marketing consultancy firm for mental health professionals.
“There are all kinds of ways our services can be brought into the community to help.”
Some types of support may be consistent, once per week or month, or even a full day once per year, while others only come up in times of need.
Following the tragedy at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, Zimmerman offered his services to the district but was told that unless he was certified with the Red Cross, he could not be allowed to help.
He followed up with certification and has since been called in to help with several local relief services. He may work with victims or their families or with first responders on the scene, in shelters, even months later.
“It can be about walking up to someone in a shelter and offering a bottle of water and striking up a conversation,” he said. “Is that a way of giving to the community? Absolutely. And does it feel gratifying? Absolutely. And is it hard, does it require certain professional resilience on the part of the provider of that pro bono service? Absolutely, it is hard. You are out of your comfort zone in a gymnasium with 100 people packed into it on cots and you are hearing stories in real time of what has just happened to these people who are looking for your support when you offer them a bottle of water.”
Of course, doing pro bono work can help one’s business practice as well.
“In terms of using pro bono work as a marketing tool, getting out of the office, meeting people and seeing the need around you can, of course, also be helpful for growing a business,” said Kim.
“People will get to see you in a positive light and you can see what the actual needs are in your community and see how you can work to meet them.
Since I’ve been on the Board of NHPA, I’ve gained new friends to combat the loneliness of solo private practice, and I’ve developed a larger group of colleagues to call if I’m struggling with how to handle a tough case. Stronger social networks lead to better physical and mental health – and that means for psychologists too!”
Catherine Robertson Souter is a freelance writer and social media agent based in New Hampshire. A contributor to New England Psychologist since its inception, she previously wrote for Massachusetts Psychologist among other media outlets.