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The pandemic stressed therapists, too. Here’s how one Pittsburgh therapist is making it through

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Katie Blackley
90.5 WESA
A tree in Allegheny Commons.

Demand for therapy has rocketed since the start of the pandemic. Many mental health professionals say that’s been hard.

For the final interview in 90.5 WESA’s series on the mental health of Pittsburghers, health and science reporter Sarah Boden spoke with Mike Elliot, who runs a therapy practice in Squirrel Hill where several of his clients are other mental health practitioners. Elliot said COVID-19 has changed the way he practices.

This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

Sarah Boden: A lot of therapists I’ve talked to for this series have told me they feel burned out, overwhelmed. Providing therapy during COVID-19 has been this, kind of, unending march through an impossible situation. Have you felt burned out?

Mike Elliot: I’m doing OK now. It ebbs and flows. Initially, it was really hard because you're learning all the technology [to practice remotely.] And you're still seeing all the same clients you were seeing, but now you're seeing them all remotely from your living room. And they're all showing up now because they don't get stuck in traffic, and they don't have to get off work. So you end up seeing a lot more clients than you normally would.

But on the plus side, I get to see what their world looks like in a way that I've never gotten to see before. Maybe before they showed you the picture of the cat, or 'Here's this picture I was working on in my art studio,' or whatever. But now you see, 'Oh, you've got 14,000 boxes in your living room. We never talked about hoarding before. Maybe we should bring that up, right?'

Boden: I know that a number of your clients are therapists themselves. And then your practice has 10 therapists and you're the boss. So how are your colleagues and your clients dealing with the stress of the pandemic?

Elliot: Well, it's a lot. It's a lot to manage. But I think when we have support, everything in life is easier. Many of my therapist clients, I've been seeing them for a while. So [in sessions], we're talking about their marriage or the problem with the boss or this trauma that happened when they were six years old. We’re not talking a lot about the pandemic, though it factors in. It makes everything harder, but it's almost sort of a background noise.

Boden: Obviously, with this huge demand, you can't accept all clients. It'd just be too much. Is it difficult to say to someone, “I'm sorry, I don't have space for you on my schedule?”

Elliot: Oh, it's extremely hard. But it's also why we've grown so much. You know, there was (sic) two of us before the pandemic. We're up to 10 now because the need didn't go away, and we could hire more.

Just today, I took on a client where I'm going to have to figure out how to fit them into my schedule because I'm full. You know, I tell my therapists all the time, 'If you're full, you're full. Know your limits and stop.' But this particular client fit into my specialties really well, as like, 'Uh, no, I can't not see you,' right? And that's a danger. You can do one or two of those. If you do more than that, you get yourself into trouble.

Boden: As a journalist I empathize with that. There are lots of important stories, and knowing that I'm not going to cover a story means that maybe something really important doesn't get attention.

Elliot: Part of it, for me, is understanding that not only is it good self-care for me, but it is also good care for my existing clients because if I don't say 'No,' I’ll do less decent work.

But also, I can't solve world hunger. I can't get world peace here tomorrow. There is (sic) a million things that I'm concerned about that I would love to make a difference in. But I can't make a difference in everything. So, I could beat myself up and say, 'Well, hey, I need to do more,' or say, 'Hey, I do enough, you know? And if there's another way that I can help that fits, I will.'

Like, we just hired an intern so we can help train the next generation of therapists. You know, by helping to train people, and by supporting my staff, that increases how many people I can help. Same for when therapists come to me for help. By helping them to create a life worth living, they then help other people create lives worth living.

This story was produced as part of "Pittsburgh's Missing Bridges," a collaborative reporting project by the Pittsburgh Media Partnership.

Sarah Boden covers health and science for 90.5 WESA. Before coming to Pittsburgh in November 2017, she was a reporter for Iowa Public Radio where she covered a range of issues, including the 2016 Iowa Caucuses.
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