Lee, a licensed school social worker in Pennsylvania, found her calling early in life. “In high school I always rooted for the underdog, and I always wanted to help people,” she says.
During her senior year of college, Lee and her classmates were assigned to various settings for hands-on training in social work. She was placed in a resident home, working with young men who’d been in trouble with the legal system or had little to no family support. That experience cemented Lee’s decision to work with young people: After earning her social work license, she soon landed in a public school system with a caseload of 40-plus students from grades five through eight.
As her career progressed and she became a mother of four, Lee found she was mostly able to maintain work-life balance with the help of her husband and other family members. But when her three-year-old daughter, Gia, was diagnosed with acute lymphocytic leukemia, juggling her students’ needs and her family’s grew much harder.
Many mental health care workers face similar challenges. When caring for others is your job, how do you carve out space to take care of your family—and yourself?
The risks of serving in a helping profession
In her role as a school social worker, Lee acts as a bridge between school and home. She keeps teachers informed about roadblocks students are facing outside of school and helps parents understand what their kids are experiencing in the classroom. She monitors the progress of students with individualized education plans (IEPs), making sure their needs are met. Lee also helps kids navigate peer conflict, anxiety, and familial stress, and she connects them with additional mental health care for issues that come up while they’re at school.
While her job is rewarding, Lee and other mental health care professionals face specific risks. They’re often the first point of contact when a person is in crisis, making their role in society crucial but very demanding.
Researchers talk about the idea of “empathy-based stress,” which can impact helping professionals who are exposed to other people’s trauma.1 As a result of their empathic response, mental health care workers are vulnerable to compassion fatigue, secondary traumatic stress, and burnout.
Compassion fatigue can occur when we become exhausted from caring for others. When someone experiences this type of fatigue, they often feel like they’re giving their all but nothing positive is happening in return. They may notice a change in their mood, diminished empathy, a shorter temper, and general weariness.
Secondary traumatic stress (STS) describes the natural behaviors and emotions that come from knowing about the traumatizing experiences of people you’re helping.2 Over time, STS may resemble post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
Burnout can have similar physical symptoms to compassion fatigue, but it’s often associated with feeling disengaged. It usually takes a long time to reach burnout, and once you’re there it doesn’t seem temporary. Disruption of work-life balance can also lead to burnout.
Lee struggled with burnout as she worked to fulfill her students’ needs while going to her daughter’s cancer treatments. “Some days I would come to work and only be able to stare at my computer,” she says. “I felt intense guilt for not being home with my sick daughter, who was literally fighting for her life. It was awful.”
After a year, Gia was well enough to start preschool. Her treatments continued, but knowing her daughter was being supported by her peers and teachers helped Lee feel less guilty.
Accepting that you can’t save everyone
One of the most stressful aspects of Lee’s job is seeing only two types of people, she says: those she can help and those she can’t. The latter is what keeps her up at night. “The most difficult thing as a school social worker is not being able to change dynamics that are happening after 3 p.m.—knowing that some students are returning to the same environment on a daily basis, and I’m not able to keep them safe,” she says.
Lee gives her all to her students every day, but over time she’s learned to accept that there’s only so much she can do. That acceptance helps her be more present for her family when she comes home.
Striking the right balance
Many mental health care workers like Lee struggle to be effective parents, partners, children, and community members while meeting the demands of their clients. If that sounds familiar, consider the following tips for taking care of your own mental health.
Find your village. Don’t hesitate to ask for help. Your colleagues are invested in your clients, too—it’s okay to lean on them in times of need. When Gia started treatment, Lee’s coworkers and administration helped get her through it. “I had several colleagues who truly held me afloat,” Lee says. “They made efforts to see my students and meet their needs, and they also took care of me: They joked with me, they asked how Gia was doing, they asked how I was doing, and they reminded me to give myself grace.”
Set and maintain boundaries. When you spend all day with people who need support, it’s easy to get lost in the work. Establishing boundaries around your job, your family, and your downtime can make a big difference—examples include turning off email notifications after a certain hour or deciding not to bring work home with you.
Revisit your purpose. People often feel called to a mental health career in the same way educators feel called to teach or doctors to heal. In a 2020 study, social workers who said they felt sure of their purpose in life reported fewer instances of burnout and compassion fatigue.3 If you’ve been in your field for a while, try taking some time to reflect on what brought you to this work in the first place.
Leverage your resources. Managing a large caseload can be overwhelming, but there are creative ways to find support. If you work with students, you might ask them to help with recreational or informal tasks like fundraising or running a club.4 Local organizations can also help fill in gaps—for example, community mental health organizations may be able to help host group sessions or informational events.
Take care of yourself. Caring for your own body and mind is just as important as the work you do. It may seem impossible to find the time, but it’s necessary for maintaining your mental health. “I like to sit on the couch or my back deck and lose myself in books that have nothing to do with social work or any social problem,” says Lee. Exercising, spending time outdoors, and trying a new hobby are all ways to give yourself a well-deserved break and boost.
Get professional support. Mental health professionals often have their own therapists to help them hold the pain they’re holding for their clients. Browse our directory to find a licensed clinician near you.
A renewed sense of purpose
Caring for other people’s mental health is essential work, but it can be draining. As caseloads grow larger and the days feel longer, it’s important to have a support network not only to offer help, but to remind you why you do this work.
Recently Lee has made an effort to surround herself with women who inspire and encourage her. “Their support makes me want to continue teaching, learn more, and be better for myself, my community, and my family,” she says.
It’s been four years since Lee’s daughter Gia went into remission from leukemia—and when she crosses the five-year mark, she’ll be considered officially cured. It’s been a hard-fought battle for Lee and her family, and through it all she’s stayed devoted to her job and her students.
Finding balance is easier on some days than others, but she knows social work is what she’s meant to do. That call she heard back in high school has never gone away.