It was September 2007 and Melissa Tiessen had just begun her year long post-doctoral residency with the University of Manitoba’s Rural and Northern Psychology Programme, where her primary supervisor was Dr. Karen Dyck. Melissa was no stranger to rural and northern living, as she grew up in a northern Manitoba community. Karen was one of the first psychologists hired into the Rural and Northern Psychology Programme in 1997. Although Karen wasn’t raised in a rural or northern community, she was from Manitoba, and her interest in rural and northern psychology came about during the completion of her doctoral degree in clinical psychology at the University of South Dakota; a program that specialized in community and cross-cultural psychology. Little did Melissa and Karen know at the time, that this would be only the start of a long-term relationship that would move from supervisor-supervisee, to colleagues, to friends, and eventually to co-founders of Intentional Therapist.
During the 15-year span of their relationship, Dr. Melissa Tiessen and Dr. Karen Dyck shared many professional experiences, from working within the public health system in rural Manitoba to eventually moving to private practice. Although Melissa left Manitoba in 2010, they continued to connect with one another and have in-person visits when their travels took them to similar locations. It was during one of these visits in Manitoba in 2018, when Melissa and Karen began discussing self-care, burnout, and many of the issues affecting psychologists and other mental health professionals. Having worked in both the public and private healthcare systems, they observed and experienced firsthand, some of the challenges mental health professionals can experience related to self-care. They reflected on how these challenges can be similar across all mental health professionals but that there may also be some unique challenges related, for example, to the work setting (e.g., rural and northern mental health clinicians may experience equally impactful but different challenges than their urban counterparts) and gender.
And so it was that Melissa and Karen came up with the idea of The Intentional Therapist, an online community that provides resources, workshops, newsletters, and – most importantly – connections to other female mental health professionals. The reason they chose to focus on female practitioners specifically is that, in addition to the pressures and stresses that affect all mental health professionals, women face a few extra hurdles. Melissa explains,
“The biggest factor that affects female mental health professionals in terms of self-care challenges is gender socialization. Many women grow up from the day they’re born being exposed to different messages than those who identify as male. These messages are very much about taking care of others, doing for others, and prioritizing others. Sometimes it can be good to put others’ needs before your own, but that can create a scenario where a girl becomes a woman and goes into a care-taking profession. She has been receiving these messages about taking care of others in her personal life, and now it is part of her professional life as well. It can then become very difficult to do what one needs to take care of oneself.”
This gender socialization has become even more scrutinized during the past two years during the pandemic. Women, including those with high-paying professional careers, have often found themselves taking on more archaic gender roles. The work of men has, in many cases, become more prioritized while the work of women becomes diminished in order to take on caregiving roles for children or elderly parents.
Karen is a caregiver to elderly parents as well as a clinical psychologist in private practice in Oakbank, Manitoba. She says that work and caregiving are not the only places where there is a discrepancy. Leisure time for women has also, historically, been tied to their partner’s leisure time. As men’s status and income improved, they had more access to leisure. Women’s leisure then became tied to that of their partner, and they were often not entitled to their own spare time on their own terms. Leisure activities being so important for self-care, this can make taking time for oneself even more difficult.
So what does that self-care look like? For Karen and Melissa it comes down to the four C’s. The first is ‘connection’ (like the network of like-minded mental health professionals that form the Intentional Therapist). The second is ‘compassion’ (toward oneself, toward your clients). The third is ‘courage’ (meaning doing something that may cause you discomfort). For many mental health professionals, any discussion around money can feel awkward. But raising your fees, for example, might be a necessity. Having that initial uncomfortable conversation can make future conversations of a similar nature much easier.
The final C is ‘creativity’. As Karen says, self-care involves a lot more than just chocolates and a bubble bath. Creativity and a playful attitude can help people find humour in their every day lives and discover activities that help them cope. These activities, and this outlook, is different from person to person. While Karen and Melissa happen to share a love for cake decorating, that certainly isn’t the case for everyone.
For some it might be running, for others painting, and for others it may be weaving plastic bags into doormats (like Melissa did during the pandemic). The important thing is that self-care is intentional. That it is made a priority, and that it remains important day in and day out. Hence The ‘Intentional’ Therapist. Melissa and Karen’s initiative is meant to be pro-active, to reach practitioners before they start to see the symptoms of burnout. Their newsletter, workshops (including a pre-convention workshop at this year’s CPA Convention), and network of female mental health professionals is intended to serve as a kind of regular reminder. You are important too – and in order to provide great care for your clients, you must also take great care of yourself.