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How Sad Are Psychologists?
Evaluating the mental health of mental health professionals
There’s long been a stereotype that the people providing mental healthcare are sad or mad themselves. We see this in movies and TV shows, where therapists have been portrayed as moody and neurotic (Frasier and Niles from Frasier), temperamental (Robin Williams in Goodwill Hunting), and even psychopathic (Hannibal Lecter). More grounded depictions, such as Jennifer Melfi from The Sopranos or Denzel Washington in Antwone Fisher, tend to show therapists struggling with their own psychological and emotional issues as they try and help their clients.
Are mental health professionals likely to have or have had mental health problems? The answer seems to be yes. While there isn’t good data on psychiatrists, there are a few academic studies of clinical and counseling psychologists’ mental health, and the results all point in the same direction:
Gilroy et al. (2002) surveyed 425 American counseling psychologists (55% F) and found that 62% self-identified as depressed and 18% had experienced suicidal ideation.
Pope & Tabachnick (1994) surveyed 476 American clinical, counseling, and school psychologists (52% F) and found that 51% had experienced an episode of clinical depression, 24% had had suicidal feelings, and 3% had attempted suicide.
Grice et al. (2018) surveyed 348 UK clinical psychologists in training (86% F) and found that 67% had experienced a mental health problem, 59% had experienced anxiety, and 46% had experienced depression. 29% of respondents were currently suffering from a mental health problem at the time the survey was conducted.
Tay et al. (2018) surveyed 678 UK clinical psychologists (82% F) and found that 63% had experienced a mental health problem, 44% had experienced mild to moderate depression, 26% had experienced anxiety, and 8% had experienced severe depression.
Victor et al. (2022) surveyed 1692 American and Canadian clinical, counseling, and school psychology faculty, graduate students, and trainees (80% F). They found that 82% had experienced a mental problem, 48% had been diagnosed with a mental disorder, and over 50% had experienced depression. 92% of grad students and 59% of faculty with mental health issues had experienced symptoms in the past five years.
For reference, about 21% of Americans experienced mental health issues in 2020 (NIMH, 2022), 21% experience major depressive disorder in their lifetime (Hasin et al., 2018), and 55% experience a mental disorder of any kind in their lifetime (Kessler et al., 2007). These numbers go up or down about 5% when you look at males (-5% ) vs. females (+5%). Comparing the studies above to these population benchmarks, it seems fair to say that clinical and counseling psychologists overall have rates of mental health issues that are about the same or worse than the general population. Of course, it’s likely that those with psychological training are more likely to accurately identify when they are suffering from mental illness than the population, and those in the general population might be underreporting. But it also seems plausible that some psychologists might overdiagnose themselves due to something like medical student syndrome.
In the Victor et al. (2022) study, over 80% of respondents with mental health issues said they had started experiencing mental health difficulties before grad school. So it’s unlikely that being a psychologist leads one to develop mental health issues, and more likely that those with issues are drawn to the profession. There’s one study of psychology majors that found they suffer more from mental health problems than other majors (McLafferty et al., 2022), but they only had 81 psych students in their sample.
There aren’t studies that look at whether therapists with mental health issues are better or worse than those without them, but my guess is that it probably doesn’t make a big difference, since therapist-level variables tend to explain little of the variance in clinical outcomes anyway (Dawes, 1994). However, these findings do raise the question of whether we should be confident in clinical and counseling psychology’s ability to provide useful and effective treatments if so many of the people working in it are afflicted with the issues they purport to have the remedy for. I’m sure if you asked clinical psychologists about this they would say that they’re not miracle workers, and their expectation isn’t to cure people but just to help them manage whatever issues they’re dealing with, as they do themselves. That’s fair, but I think if the public knew that so many psychologists suffered from mental health issues, it might lead them to trust the profession less.