BY JENNIFER L. BEARSE, PSYD,
MARK R. MCMINN, PHD,
WINSTON SEEGOBIN, PSYD, AND
KURT FREE, PHD
Most mental health professionals seek personal psychotherapy at least once in their careers (Phillips, 2011), and at a much higher rate than the general
population (Norcross & Guy, 2005). While one-fourth of the
general adult population has received mental health services,
three-fourths of mental health professionals have done so (Bike,
Norcross, & Schatz, 2009; Norcross & Guy, 2005).
A wealth of studies have explored why psychologists have
sought personal psychotherapy — often for the same reason
that the rest of the world seeks therapy, such as coping with loss,
dealing with depression or anxiety, or struggling with a personal
crisis. However, more research is needed about the potential
barriers that psychologists may experience when considering
In this article, we discuss the research exploring why
psychologists may benefit from psychotherapy and report on the
findings of our own national survey, which explored independent
practitioners’ perceived barriers to psychological care.
Risk factors for psychologists
The nature of psychologists’ work may predispose them to
experience certain problems. Burnout, vicarious traumatization
and compassion fatigue, countertransference and a history of
personal trauma can all take their toll.
When it comes to burnout, psychologists are at risk for
several reasons. Many practitioners, for example, tend to put
others’ needs before their own. Psychologists also must control
their emotions when faced with clients’ trauma and intense
emotions. They may have a heightened sensitivity to people and
the environment and a sense of isolation (O’Connor, 2001).
Negative client behaviors, lack of therapeutic success, and
the demands of paperwork and administrative duties can also
contribute to burnout (Norcross, Guy, & Laidig, 2007).
The cost of burnout can be quite high. Psychology
practitioners in a diminished capacity may experience intense
personal distress and may not be able to serve their clients —
and could even harm them (Rupert & Morgan, 2005).
Depression is another prevalent symptom of distress in
psychologists. Pope and Tabachnick (1994) reported that the
majority of the psychologists they surveyed ( 61 percent of
476) indicated they had experienced at least one episode of
clinical depression. In another study, 62 percent of APA Div.
17 (Society of Counseling Psychology) members surveyed
identified themselves as depressed, with a sense of withdrawal
and isolation from colleagues cited as the most frequent issues
associated with the depression (Gilroy, Carroll, & Murra, 2002).
Even more alarming is the rate of suicidal thoughts among
psychologists. Pope and Tabachnick (1994) reported that 29
percent of those surveyed indicated they had felt suicidal, and
almost 4 percent indicated they had made at least one suicide
attempt. Gilroy et al. (2002) found that 42 percent of their
respondents reported experiencing suicidal ideation or behavior.
According to the National Institute for Occupational Safety
and Health, of more than 230 occupations, male psychologists
were the most likely to commit suicide, with an odds ratio of
3. 5 times greater than the general public (Ukens, 1995).
Psychologists are also at risk for vicarious traumatization
and compassion fatigue (Phillips, 2011), as well as
countertransference, the phenomenon that can affect mental
health providers’ cognitive, affective and behavioral responses
to clients (Burwell-Pender & Halinski, 2008). In relation to the
general public, for example, psychologists may have a higher-than-normal incidence of childhood trauma, according to Elliott &
Guy, 1993; Nikcevic, Kramolisova-Advani, & Spada, 2007.
In light of these risk factors, the potential benefits of personal
psychotherapy are substantial. Most psychologists who pursue
personal psychotherapy are pleased with the outcome (Bike et
al., 2009). Experiential learning through personal psychotherapy
may help psychologists better understand the nature of their
work and become more effective in meeting their clients’
needs (Daw & Joseph, 2007). By having dealt successfully
with their own personal issues, psychologists may also gain an
enhanced sense of efficacy in their own ability to help others
(Pope & Tabachnick, 1994). They may also experience a sort of
camaraderie with their psychotherapist that can help diminish
feelings of isolation (Coster & Schwebel, 1997).
Deterrents to seeking help
With all those benefits, what keeps psychologists from seeking
help? Research has identified several barriers, including:
• Social stigma (Komiya, Good, & Sherrod, 2000).
• Treatment fears (Deane & Todd, 1996; Kushner & Sher, 1989).
• Fear of emotion (Komiya et al., 2000).
• Self-disclosure (Hinson & Swanson, 1993; Vogel & Wester,
Social norms and self-esteem may also influence the
decision to seek psychotherapy (Vogel, Wester, & Larson, 2007).
Although some of these barriers exist for almost everyone,
others appear to be unique to mental health professionals.
Psychologists may also fear the stigma of seeking therapy,
believing they may be viewed negatively by family and friends,
as well as by clients, employers and colleagues who may question
the ability of a psychologist who is struggling with psychological
distress (Barnett, Baker, Elman, & Schoener, 2007).
A psychological diagnosis can also lead to problems in
the area of health care and disability insurance, where certain
diagnoses can affect the psychologists’ ability to get adequate