The year 2020 is the first in recent memory to become a four-digit punchline, synonymous with a level of struggle that sometimes has seemed comically surreal. This year, a pandemic has altered our way of living, longstanding racial inequities have led to civil unrest, and divisions have troubled our communities.
Although 2020 has become an absurdist punchline, its impact on our collective mental health is all too real. During late June, 40% of adults in the U.S. reported struggling with mental health or substance use, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Rates of anxiety and depression were three and four times, respectively, the levels reported in 2019.
While the pandemic disrupted our go-to coping skills, shocking killings prompted Black Lives Matter protests. As a BBC report says, these experiences “reopened a psychological wound for Black people and revealed unique challenges within mental health services” that are part of inequitable systems.
It’s all a lot to take in.
The mental health impacts of 2020’s painful realities may be heightened for behavioral health professionals, especially those who are marginalized. After all, behavioral health providers support clients in navigating these difficulties while also wading through many of them in their own lives.
Dealing with the difficulties of 2020 also brings opportunities for resilience — perhaps just as stubborn as the adversities we’ve faced.
Resilience has many definitions and facets. Here are some of our favorites:
- Resilience is often simply described as the ability to “bounce back” from life’s failures, stresses, or traumas. So resilience is especially needed in times like this.
- Resilience involves tapping into your strength to continue on your true path, despite facing obstacles and challenges, according to Joyce Marter, LCPC, a therapist.
- Social worker and best-selling author Brené Brown says that resilience is tolerating discomfort and painful emotions.
- One resilience researcher, Galen Buckwalter, has found that this ability consists of strength, purpose, and pleasure.
Why Is Resilience Important for Behavioral Health Providers?
Perhaps the most important thing to know about resilience is that it can be built. It is not just a trait you are naturally imbued with, but “an active practice” that anyone can engage in. In other words, even in times like these, resilience can be fostered.
Just as individual practices like self-care can ground you through hardship, organizational strategies can help your clinicians and staff weather this year. Resilience is particularly helpful when working with behavioral health clients because it mitigates the impacts of trauma and prevents burnout, which tend to affect behavioral health providers.
Although it is clear that the pandemic has led to unusual stress around the world, the individual outcomes will vary considerably, and the prevalence of lasting traumatic effects is still unknown. Before the spread of COVID-19, the estimated rate of trauma in the U.S. adult population in general was 70%, and has been even higher among therapists.
Master’s level licensed social workers are twice as likely to have PTSD as the general population. This may be because they are motivated by empathy to pursue work in the field.
Further, about half of mental health professionals have reported moderate to high burnout, or exhaustion from work-related stress, before the pandemic. When clinicians experience burnout, they may have weaker boundaries, harming clients through effects like counter-transference.
Resilience can be thought of as solid ground to stand on, an anchor to your values when stress threatens to pull you away. At work, resilience is associated with job satisfaction, employee engagement, and employee interpersonal relationships. Resilience is also critical in your personal life and is linked to self-esteem and a sense of control over life events.
The sense of control that resilience offers is particularly relevant in times like these, when so much is out of your hands.
Although we often think of resilience as an individual trait, it is also collective. After all, the ability to bounce back can sometimes be fostered best in community.
In our work lives, many of us feel newly isolated from peers, as professionals working from home struggle to manage households and workdays at the same time. Connection to colleagues can be a lifeline among domestic stresses.
How To Build Your Team’s Resilience
The workplace, even if it’s virtual, offers a critical and uniquely effective setting to realize collective resilience.
Here are some concrete strategies for fostering resilience in your behavioral health workforce:
- Build strong social relationships. Cultivate a sense of belonging among the team. Use strategies like case conferences to facilitate an environment in which staff can show up for each other. An important, and often overlooked, element of relationship building is developing a shared understanding of how to communicate and relate to each other. Build this healthy culture through conversations centering on gratitude, humor, and adaptability.
- Keep them safe. These days, you have to be especially creative in coordinating the logistics of team-building meetings. Consider new options like smaller, shorter gatherings outdoors over hot cocoa or digital settings you haven’t tried yet.
- Support autonomy. As much as you can, give your team members the autonomy to manage their work and even make organizational decisions. When issues arise, use nonjudgmental communication and other forms of trauma-informed supervision to find solutions together.
- Offer concrete support. Trying to prevent burnout among an overworked and underpaid staff is an uphill battle. The foundations of a resilient behavioral health workforce are reasonable caseloads, competitive wages, and benefits that allow staff to take care of their needs.
- Develop safe and trusting environments. Remember how Brené Brown said that resilience is tolerating difficult emotions? Resilience is often portrayed as positivity in the face of anything, but in hard times, resilience is also about naming and honoring struggle. Recognize that daily life is harder than it used to be for many folks on your team, and give them space to talk, even if they choose not to.
You and your team may not have all the answers, but you don’t need to. The process of getting through this time together, and with care, can itself build resilience.