Self-care for psychologists in the wake of violence

Self-care, community building and meaningful action can help psychologists serve their clients better.

For many in the U.S., this summer may feel like a particularly violent and dangerous one. Since June, we’ve seen multiple mass shootings; the increasing visibility of police brutality against people of color; and deadly attacks on law enforcement officers, all heightened by the especially polarized political climate of this election year.

Psychologists, trained to guide clients through emotional chaos and trauma, may be struggling with their own responses to these events, particularly if they or their communities are directly affected by the violence. How can psychologists take care of their own emotional well-being, and also serve their clients, who may be experiencing these events differently than they are themselves?

“Give yourself permission to be vulnerable, and to ask for help,” says Olga Vera, PhD. “Do these things where you feel safest, among the communities that nourish you — with your colleagues, your family or your friends.”

Vera, who directs the Faculty and Staff Assistance Program at the University of Colorado-Boulder, emphasizes that psychologists must take care of themselves before they can take care of others. Good sleep, nutrition and physical activity should be a priority. “These are the things that power us up so that we can help the communities that are suffering, which may be our own,” she says.

Similarly, John Christensen, PhD, a clinical psychologist and consultant based in Corbett, Oregon, recommends a combination of self-care, community-building and organized action. “We can all feel powerless in response to events or forces larger than we can control,” says Christensen, who also has a background in community organizing. “But taking effective action, whether it’s getting politically involved or building a sense of community with others, can counteract that feeling of being overwhelmed.”

To take action, psychologists can volunteer with an organization that works for positive change, or write letters to the editor or opinion pieces that bring their professional expertise to bear on troubling issues, Christensen suggests.

The goal is for psychologists to seek spaces where they can have difficult, candid conversations, and then provide the same opportunity to their clients. For example, when working with law enforcement officers, Vera recommends making it clear that they are welcome and that their experiences are valid.

When working with individuals impacted by racially motivated violence, providing this same space might mean being upfront about your own experience. “If you aren’t a person of color, acknowledge it. Be transparent about privilege and power,” she says.

Vera and Christensen’s advice for their colleagues is in tune with what they guide their clients toward: Take care of yourself; connect with your community; and translate your emotions into meaningful, positive action.

Resources for Psychologists to Use with Clients and Patients