Why A Good Complex Trauma Therapist is Hard to Find

By Sara Staggs, LICSW, MPH

DSC00185I recently heard from two former clients that they have not been successful in finding new therapists since I moved. They’ve tried new therapists, of course, but they have found that what “qualifies” the trauma therapists they’ve met is the fact that they’ve treated trauma. But doing something over and over again doesn’t mean I do it well, it just means that I’m an expert in how I’m doing it. I can practice hitting tennis balls everyday for years, but if I’ve been practicing hitting them wrong, then I’m no tennis master; I’m just really good at hitting tennis balls badly. No, only perfect practice makes perfect. Experience plus training plus good supervision is what can produce a good trauma therapist.

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The Traumatized Trauma Therapist, the Mentally Ill Mental Health Professional

By Sara Staggs, LICSW, MPH

shutterstock_151783631Though the idea of suffering helping professionals goes back to Greek mythology, the term “Wounded Healer” was first coined by Carl Jung. In fact, he argued that only wounded healers could be effective. There is little research on this phenomenon, but many clinicians, regardless of their training, many not want to tell you about there own scars, but they might be willing to share that they went to school with many “wounded healers.” In my previous post I talked about some of the challenges associated with this.  This post describes what it takes to move toward the goal of serving others.

Working Through

Even people who have worked through traumatic events sometimes find that they need to process it in a new way. It’s not unusual for a clinician, particularly a new one or a student to find themselves saying, “Huh, I thought I’d worked through that already.” It’s one thing to get over something, but it’s another to manage it while walking through it with someone else.

One analogy is to think of a break-up. It’s one thing to get over that person, to not think of them so much, to move on to another partner. It’s quite another to do so while spending time with your ex on a regular basis, perhaps still engaging in romantic interaction or seeing them with a new partner. That’s kind of what doing trauma therapy is like for survivors of like events, except instead of a relationship it was a traumatic event. It’s a new level of “getting over it.”

Research validates this conclusion. Trauma therapists with a personal history of trauma report more negative impact from providing trauma therapy than those with no personal history.

Preventing negative effects

But because all therapists are at risk for burnout, especially when working with particular populations—those with a history of abuse, trauma or personality disorders—and especially when they have their own history, it is extra important that they are spending time, money and energy on taking care of themselves.

Some things that are helpful:

  • Have your own therapist
  • Have a good clinical supervisor—if your actual supervisor isn’t it, then find another one
  • Get peer support from coworkers, former classmates, or other professionals in the field
  • Do self care in all five dimensions:
    • physical
    • mental
    • spiritual
    • emotional
    • social
  • Also, I think that it is helpful to have someone perform a service for you if you are in the field of serving others. I don’t know why and there isn’t any empirical evidence for it, but I just know that I feel something inside me refilling when I’m getting my hair done or getting a massage or even receiving cookies from a friend.

Eating cookie image available from Shutterstock.

I Have A Mental Illness–Should I Be a Therapist?

By Sara Staggs, LICSW, MPH

DSC00342One question that seems to come up is a variation on this:

“I am a survivor of [childhood trauma/mental illness]. I have struggled with [self-destructive behaviors like disordered eating, addiction, risky sexual behavior, self-harm and/or suicide attempts]. I have been diagnosed with [diagnoses] and take [medication] and have done therapy and am doing better. I want to help people like me—should I?”

Two extreme answers are:

a)    of course not—you are way too fragile!

b)   of course you should—peers are the best kind of support there is!

These may sound like caricatures of real answers, but I find it helpful to think of extreme examples to yes or no questions, since the truth is usually somewhere in between. Naturally, there are arguments for either option, and questions to consider to help you make your own decision, rather than providing one for you.

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Can Trauma Cause Schizophrenia?

By Sara Staggs, LICSW, MPH
DSC04550My dad killed my mom, Sara, he killed my mom.  Right in front of me while I lay under the bed.  He killed her, Sara, and then he left. I never saw him again.

My first job out of graduate school was working with an Assertive Community Treatment team.  It’s a fascinating program sometimes referred to as a “hospital without walls.” The team is made up of a psychiatrist, psychiatric nurses, mental health professionals (like me) and a peer support paraprofessional, who has a shared history with the clients: adults with severe, persistent mental illness.  In addition, we were a specialized team who only treated clients who additionally had substance dependence diagnoses.

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Does Your Culture Define You as Mentally Ill?

By Sara Staggs, LICSW, MPH

IMG_0478.PNGIn many ways, being born in the United States or another western country means having a number of privileges. However, privilege, oppression, inequality and poverty are more complicated than GDP, and a full discussion is outside the scope of this post. What is relevant, however, is how mental illnesses present in different cultures, and how that impacts outcomes for people.

A Friendly Man Shunned

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Should Your Therapist Be Just Like You?

By Sara Staggs, LICSW, MPH

IMG_0187Should your therapist look like you? Have had similar experiences?  Because there are so many ways that people can match, it’s impossible to answer this in a simple way. Let’s look at the different types of backgrounds that people might want to share with their therapists—and that therapists may want to treat clients.

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The 7 Layers of Good Therapy

By Sara Staggs, LICSW, MPH


Screen Shot 2014-09-26 at 6.14.27 PM










Continued from last post: therapy is exceedingly complex, and a good therapist is able to juggle and integrate all 7 of these layers.

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How to Do Good Therapy

By Sara Staggs, LICSW, MPH


Therapy is really hard to do. Good therapy is, anyway. Bad therapy is pretty easy: giving advice, passively listening, befriending clients, or following a rigid step-by-step protocol. Good therapy is incredibly demanding and involves observing and then integrating information on a number of levels. That’s why it can be so hard to find a good therapist, and why I have seen brilliant and terrible ones from all backgrounds and levels of education.

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