Stress and the Mental Health Professional

by Elizabeth Stuart


Hey, how are you?


How many times have we had that exchange? Don’t worry, I get it. I’m tired too. Whether you’re finishing studying for the licensure exam or you just began your graduate studies, mental health professionals have a lot on our plates!

I remember a professor telling our cohort in my first year of graduate school that as soon-to-be experts in the field of behavioral and mental health, we are usually the most mentally unhealthy. My immediate reaction was to dismiss the thought. How could that be? I just spent the whole weekend learning everything there is to know about proper treatment implementations for antisocial personality disorder.

I laugh at myself now, but how many of us unconsciously find ourselves in the same frame of mind? While we’re gearing up to become professionals in the realm of behavioral health, we seem to lose ourselves to the juggling act. We have to find a balance between school, friends, accruing supervised hours, family, our thesis, romantic relationships, studying for the licensure exam… the list can drag on and on.

According to Myers, Sweeney, Popick, Wesley, Bordfeld, and Fingerhut (2012), there is a significant amount of stress placed on graduate students, especially coming from our aforementioned balancing act. Newell and MacNeil (2010), posit that professionals dealing with the daily stress of their clients will eventually take on some of that stress, resulting in “vicarious trauma.”

This means that graduate students in our field are double-dipping into stress!

As responsible, soon-to-be professionals, we already know that when we have too much stress, we underperform. We need to get it together. It is not only in our best interest, it’s in our clients’ best interest.

But, HOW?!

I can answer that one for you, too! I have a couple of solutions to the ever-growing mound of stress and things that need our attention.

1. Make a prioritized to-do list.

  • I know it sounds silly but trust me. We don’t have to fear the unknown when we can see it written down in front of us.
  • When the items are prioritized, you can more easily see what needs your attention now, and what can wait until after me-time.
  • Cross things off when you finish them! Psychology shows that it helps to (unconsciously or consciously) motivate us to get our things done when we get a small reward!

2. Focus on those relationships!

  • “You may be in graduate school, but your friends, partners, and family are not” – Another great quote from my first year at graduate school.
  • Our studies take a lot out of us. Make sure you set aside some intentional time to address those who are important in your life so that they know they haven’t been forgotten.


  • As mental health professionals, we are some of the worst offenders of self-care.
  • Even though it may not seem as important as something else on your list, intentional self-care has been shown to dramatically decrease stress and increase success.

There we go, problem solved, right?

Haha. Good one.

Of course, this is a simplification of common issues. And of course, we will need to tailor to our own situations. Being a graduate student is a balancing act, and we’re probably going to be tired for a while. However, please, don’t let it get out of hand. You’re doing amazing things! And sometimes a nap or some quality self-care is more important than anything.



Myers, S. B., Sweeney, A. C., Popick, V., Wesley, K., Bordfeld, A., & Fingerhut, R. (2012). Self-care practices and perceived stress levels among psychology graduate students. Training and Education in Professional Psychology, 6(1), 55.

Newell, J. M., & MacNeil, G. A. (2010). Professional burnout, vicarious trauma, secondary traumatic stress, and compassion fatigue. Best Practices in Mental Health, 6(2), 57-68.