It’s been a year since the world shrunk and tele-health became the norm for mental health service delivery. As most know by now, tele-health involves video-to-video instead of face-to-face sessions. Countless therapists are seeing clients from their home offices, bedrooms, kitchens or the most quiet closet in the house as long as there is wifi and decent lighting. If you have therapists and other mental health professionals in your networks of friends and family, there are a few things worth keeping in mind about how to be a friend to the folks who are quietly holding together the sanity of our country, one video session at a time.
First off, ask about how their work is going — yes, you can ask. Whether in person or by video, mental health sessions occur behind a vital cloak of invisibility called confidentiality. This means of course that ethical practitioners will never share specifics about client sessions. But that doesn’t mean you can’t ask general questions about how a provider is experiencing their work. Since they won’t be sharing details about clients, therapists being asked this question get the opportunity to talk about their own experience. And there’s a lot that could be said. For example, “My practice is full and I’m struggling with turning people away” or “I’m feeling really gratified even though tired” or “My work is breaking my heart”. Due to a commitment to confidentiality, therapists often experience the world like a secret agent might, aware of a layer of reality that will never be shared. Simply expressing curiosity about a mental health practitioner’s professional life can soften the gap between realities and lessen the experience of aloneness inside of that alternate universe.
Second, be aware of the tendency of your therapist friends and family to always keep the attention on you and be sure to turn the spotlight back around on them. After a certain number of years of training and practice, this conversational focus on others is not just a cultivated skill; it’s a habit hammered in steel that is hard to break. You likely appreciate your therapist friend’s tendency to be curious about you, which is of course one of the reasons their company is so enlivening. But be sure you engage similar levels of curiosity and attention on them. In doing so, you are helping your mental health professional friend mark the difference between when they are the professional listener and when they are in their own personal life where it’s time to share the attention.
Third, express gratitude even if you don’t understand their work. Unless you yourself are in the medical or wellness field, it’s likely you never will. But this isn’t necessary in order to say thank you for the labor that folks in mental health are doing right now to keep so many countless adults, children and families afloat. It’s powerful to even acknowledge how little you understand while sharing gratitude. For example, “I’ll never know how much your heart stretches and breaks every day to hear stories of people struggling. But I want you to know how grateful I am for your labor to listen and be present for others’ pain”. Put it in your own words or borrow mine. Pain is lessened when it is held by many sets of hands and in this case, hearts. By acknowledging the people who are holding others, in a small way you help “hold the holders” which is vital to ensure the continued wellness of us all.
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