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When Your Therapist Gets Depressed

What happens to your therapy when your therapist gets ill or depressed?

You’ve been seeing him/her for a long time and gradually it dawns on you that although your therapist is doing an excellent job there is something you intuit telepathically that things are not as they seem.  There is something intrinsically ironic about the depressed therapist.  Someone who dishes out wise therapeutic advice as a profession can sometimes fail to see what is happening to them.  Such is depression.  It sneaks up on one with much stealth.  Sometimes it takes another to point out what cannot be so blindingly obvious to the sufferer.

It is inherently frightening to think that one’s therapist is not omnipotent and immortal.  I had a friend once who broke up with her therapist because he had a cold.  She simply could not handle someone she looked up to as having physical vulnerabilities.  She was terrified he could not look after himself let alone her and she was quite angry about it.  The logical, rational side of this woman with an English Literature degree who worked as a teacher was not in residence when she was in therapy.  It was the little girl inside of her that had to run to survive.

He on the other hand dismissed her fears as being groundless.  He didn’t get it and refused to discuss it.  He didn’t ask her that universal transference question: “What does my cold mean to you?”  Much insight into her childhood could have been gained were it not for his total disregard of her panic.  Perhaps it was his inability to handle her fears of his virus that caused her to flee, rather than the disease itself?  I wonder what it says about his childhood.

Denial plays a role as well.  Denial of one’s own depression is ubiquitous and when one is a therapist – even more so.  The “depressed psychologist” is an oxymoron, a contradiction in terms.  Surely you can’t have a degree in pain and suffering and be depressed as well!  But empathic people who have experienced pain and suffering are far more likely to become therapists than people who have never suffered from debilitating attacks of mental illness.

Some clients realize this in the periphery of their consciousness, but in all truthfulness, don’t want to know if their therapist is depressed.  And that is OK as well.

Anger can also be a very valid response to depression in the therapist.

How dare you get depressed!

That’s my role!

You are the strong one and I need you to be strong!

You are hijacking my head space.

I can’t see you if you are depressed.

Of course, most therapists rarely disclose current personal depression.  It’s the sensitive, perceptive client who sometimes tunes into the cloud of melancholy emanating from the therapists persona, viscerally feels the lack-lustre body language and the watery but wise sadness in their eyes.  Sometimes, like clients, it’s what therapists don’t say that gives out little hints and clues and allows us to glimpse inside their normally inscrutable mind-set.

There is also the mildly depressed client who grows with the mildly depressed therapist through shared, mutual empathy.  There is a unique merging of soul into soul where you are both floating along the same river, helping each other reach the side of the shore through the twilight zone.  Your lugubrious self has merged with another’s through suffering.  For some, the belief that your therapist truly understands what you are going through, because of his/her own experience, aids your own recovery.

The response one has to the therapist’s perceived or real illness or depression is well worth exploring for personal growth.

When Your Therapist Gets Depressed

Sonia Neale

Sonia Neale was recently awarded the Inaugural Barbara Hocking SANE Australia Fellowship to study and research Borderline Personality Disorder overseas in the USA, Canada, UK and Ireland. Her previous Psych Central blog was called Therapy Unplugged. She is the author of two books, The Bad Mother’s Revenge and Death by Teenager, both published by ABC Books/Harper Collins. She lives in Western Australia, is married with three adult children, has studied psychoanalytic psychotherapy, has a Certificate IV in Mental Health and is studying for a Psychology/Counselling degree. She currently works as a peer support worker in the mental health field.

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APA Reference
Neale, S. (2010). When Your Therapist Gets Depressed. Psych Central. Retrieved on September 28, 2020, from


Last updated: 4 Jul 2010
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