I’m a clinical psychologist. I first provided therapy to help others way back during the Reagan administration and I’ve worked in a busy public psychiatric hospital for over twenty years. I also teach grad students at a large state university how to become excellent therapists.
I won’t say I’ve seen or heard it all, but I’ve heard and seen plenty. Suicide attempts, drug addiction, sexual abuse, and schizophrenia are all part of my daily vocabulary. I’ve been involved in the care of more than 50,000 people over the last three decades.
I’ve often been asked, “Do you carry all that stuff you hear about home with you?” or, “Are you going to analyze me? I need to watch what I say around you.”
Apart from joking “I don’t know, do you need to be analyzed?” I usually said, “I turn off my psychologist mode like a light switch as soon as I leave work. I don’t think about it very much after that, and I certainly don’t do therapy with people I’m not working with professionally.”
In fact, I have always felt good about turning off the clinical switch, as I was taught this was a good way to cope and to avoid burnout. I’ve also encouraged others not to take work home so they can achieve greater balance in their lives. And my professional code clearly warns against crossing the line and providing therapy to friends and family.
And yet, I have started to realize that although my switch is turned off most of the time when I am off duty, there are moments when it begins to turn itself back on, and sometimes when I least expect it.
For example, I was having lunch recently and overhead two men at a nearby table. One said, “My supervisor drew the plans for me, and he don’t know what he’s doing. He ain’t got no right to horn in like that. Then I revise them and he still takes all the credit. I get so ticked off I’d like to slit his tires or something.”
It’s likely that these two guys were just venting about work. But my thoughts were, “He sounds very angry and frustrated. Using poor grammar, possibly less educated? Limited coping skills? Potential for workplace violence?”
And back when my daughter was about 4 years old, she said, “My friend Ginger said boys like big boobs.” Most people would say kids just soak up everything they hear, right? Don’t sweat it. But I thought, “Where is Ginger hearing these kinds of comments? At home? From whom? Should I call Ginger’s parents?”
Do I act on these concerns? Usually not. I said nothing to the two men I overheard. After talking it over with my spouse, we decided to remain watchful, but didn’t call Ginger’s parents.
Then all of this changed. Gradually, I have begun to allow the psychologist in me to act and respond more directly in my personal life. Is this some need to connect with others on a more meaningful level to make a difference? Or is it a sense that it’s simply the right thing to do? These reasons, I suppose, are as good as any.
Not long ago, a neighbor confided, “No one understands what I’m going through. My wife may have leukemia and the kids aren’t taking it well. My salary is hardly enough to get by on. I don’t know what to do.”
Before, I would have been supportive, offering to babysit or bring over some food. This time, though, I said without hesitation, “I’m very concerned about you. Have you had thoughts of hurting yourself? (Fortunately, no.) I would strongly encourage you to see a therapist to help you sort things out; I can recommend a good one. Also, there’s a local leukemia support group that would be helpful.” My neighbor was very grateful and followed through with my suggestions.
I had been trying to fool myself that my professional switch was only turned on from 9:00 to 5:00. In doing so, I kept myself from sharing information and advice that could have made a positive difference for others.
So now when I have the impulse to draw upon my experience, I usually do. Am I providing therapy to my friends, family and colleagues? Of course not. But by sharing information and useful resources, I believe I am a more compassionate and helpful spouse, father, boss, and friend.
I know there may be 100 excuses you can come up with to remain distant or uninvolved when faced with the choice to help someone with a problem or personal struggle. But now more than ever in these times of uncertainty, don’t forget to share your unique skills and knowledge, especially with those you care most about.
So remember to never turn your switch off entirely. Let your light shine and its glow will warm and brighten the darkness.
I’m not exactly sure where this blog will go. But one thing I know is that I want to use it as a place to share clear, proven information that can help you and your loved ones learn about recovery from mental illness and addiction, have improved mental and physical health, and find more satisfaction and happiness in your life.
I’ll also state for the record that these posts reflect only my views and not those of my employer or any other group with which I’m affiliated.
So here’s a question: What are some times when you have used your unique knowledge and skills to help others with a personal struggle? I invite your comments and if there are topics related to mental health that you would like to suggest for future blogs, please do so.