The Realm of Our Industry

The Realm of Our Industry

by Larisa A. Garski, MA, LMFT & Justine Mastin, MA, LMFT
Knowing the evolution of the mental health industry can prepare clinicians for what may be its rocky future.


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From The Grieving Therapist by Justine Mastin & Larisa Garski, published by North Atlantic Books, copyright © 2023 by Justine Mastin & Larisa Garski. Reprinted by permission of North Atlantic Books.

“In the beginning, we were all psychotherapists. And it was good.”

—Bruce Minor, Minnesota Member of the MFT Community

no longer a collection of individual practitioners who see each other as fellow members of a therapeutic federation, our industry (therapy) has become compartmentalized, industrialized, and controlled by third-party payers
THE TIME HAS COME to face our industry and sit with the ways the therapy system in which we work helps us, hurts us, and holds us to a standard impossible to meet. Throughout this book we have touched on many issues facing our work; now we are looking specifically at the system in which we work. No longer a collection of individual practitioners who see each other as fellow members of a therapeutic federation, our industry (therapy) has become compartmentalized, industrialized, and controlled by third-party payers.

As you begin this leg of the journey, we invite you to pause and reflect on the mentors and experiences who supported you on your quest to become a therapist. We welcome you to reflect on mentors of both the past and the present, as well as those with whom you had a challenging or even fraught relationship. Even those mentors and supervisors who we experience as awful can teach us valuable lessons (though that does not exonerate them).

When it comes to mentors and supervisors, we, the authors, have had the best and the worst. For this chapter, we reflect on some of the greats from our local MFT community: Anne Ramage, PsyD, LMFT, our graduate school professor who taught us so much more than we ever realized there was to know about Carl Whitaker; and the collective of marriage and family therapists who have sustained the Minnesota field for decades, some of whom also became our supervisors and mentors: Ginny D’Angelo, LICSW, LMFT, Bruce Minor, LMFT, Briar Miller, LMFT, and Michelle Libi, LMFT.

You blink and end your repose to find that you’re alone. It feels as if you have awoken from a dream. You rise from your resting spot and begin to walk down the winding path toward the sound of a river. As you walk, you notice the crunch of twigs underfoot and hear distant birds. Is one of them the red-winged blackbird? Neither your bird friend nor the forest yeti are anywhere in sight. Perhaps you dreamed them.

You look up at the branches of a nearby tree and notice a small silver shape clinging to a twig. Pausing, you raise up onto your tiptoes and realize that this is a cocoon, perhaps belonging to a butterfly or a moth. You gaze at the cocoon for a moment longer, noticing it shake as the small creature inside struggles with its transformation. Change is such hard work, you muse, and resume the hike. As you walk you notice that you have many aches in your body. How long were you sitting in meditation? You stretch your neck from side to side as you continue to make your way down the mountainside.

As you breathe in, the air is fragrant with the scent of dried leaves and warm earth. You wonder at the way the seasons seem to have shifted around you on your travels. As you look around the forest bordering either side of the path, you notice hints of yellow and orange in many of the leaves. The wind shifts, blowing the undersides of the leaves up, causing them to shift and sway. It reminds you of a distant memory, but as you grasp for it, the memory skitters out of reach.

The path winds down the slope, and you lean slightly backward against the tug of inertia and gravity. The sun’s rays are just the right amount of warmth, offering a radiating blanket of heat against the cooler air temperature. You look down and slightly to your left, and you see a ribbon of blue snaking through the undergrowth far below: a river. It looks like a nice place to pause and rest. You estimate that you have at least another mile to walk down the mountain before you reach the riverbank. You walk down toward it.

Therapy’s Big Brother

Once upon a time, as Bruce Minor reminds us, we were all just psychotherapists. In the very, very beginning of our industry, there were just small- to medium-sized collectives of human beings throughout the American and European continents — composed mostly of wealthy men and a few audacious women — gathering together in an attempt to suss out the nature of the human mind and heart. From these meetings, the field of psychoanalysis was born.

While these early theorists and practitioners engaged in practices that we would gasp at today — Freud psychoanalyzing his daughter, Jung sleeping with several of his patients who then became therapists-in-training — their mistakes became the foundations upon which rules like “no dual relationships” were based.

these early therapists did not have insurance agencies or managed care with which to deal. But they also tended to focus on treating the bourgeoisie
These early therapists did not have insurance agencies or managed care with which to deal. But they also tended to focus on treating the bourgeoisie — the European upper middle class who could afford to pay for things like this newfangled “talking cure,” thanks to their monopoly on industry. Neither Jung, Adler, nor Freud himself (founding psychoanalysts all) had to consider whether high-quality psychotherapy happens in increments of forty-five, sixty, or ninety minutes. We bring you this abbreviated history lesson to remind us all that our present constructs have not always existed. Not only have they not always existed, but they might not actually be the most effective structure for treatment.

When family therapy was new, co-therapy and one-way mirrors with reflection teams were the standard of the day. When Justine tells graduate students about these once-standard training practices, they are in awe. “But how did that get paid for?!” they exclaim. The short answer is that decades ago, universities, particularly public universities, had more money in the humanities and social science departments.

Insurance once reimbursed for far more therapeutic services than they do now. Then Justine will often go on to tell her students about sitting in her own graduate school classroom at Hazelden Graduate School of Addiction Studies (now Hazelden Betty Ford) and hearing her professors talk about the changing landscape of drug and alcohol treatment.

but the evolution that followed brings us to a dystopian present where third-party payers like insurance companies are dictating the terms and conditions of treatment
Structured limitations are necessary for high-quality therapy (recall the example of sandtray therapy and the need for a literal box within which to put the sand, from chapter 2). Certainly, the case could be made that American psychoanalysis and drug treatment of the 1970s and 1980s was in need of a bit more clinical oversight. But the evolution that followed brings us to a dystopian present where third-party payers like insurance companies are dictating the terms and conditions of treatment. They’re also dictating the amount of money that the clinician receives for the work they do based solely on their licensure, rather than on the type of work they’re doing. These payouts are often inadequate at best and paltry at worst. Because of variable reimbursement rates, the amount of time and effort needed to handle billing issues, and the hoops clinicians need to navigate to get even the small amount of money they’re paid, private-practice clinicians are increasingly opting out of the insurance model. This causes frustration for would-be clients, and for other clinicians.

Licensure Drama

Have you ever had an issue with another clinician and thought, “Well, that’s just because they’re a Ph.D.; doctorate school sucks all of the fun out of you”? Or perhaps you’ve thought, “They don’t teach master’s-level clinicians anything about diagnostics.” Third-party payers and clinicians determine their reimbursement or compensation rates based on a number of factors, including education. Hierarchical thinking dictates that the more education and experience a person has, the more they should be valued.

The main way that we express or show value is through monetary compensation. However, this very quickly leads to confusion and resentment when master’s-level clinicians and doctoral-level clinicians are working at the same practice or agency, and are performing, at least on paper, the same job functions. Disparate training and licensure requirements can lead to differences in case conceptualizations, standards of care, and clinical interventions.

Certainly, these varied perspectives can be helpful if discussed and processed through open and honest clinical dialogue. But who has time for that? We don’t say this to minimize or undermine the value of care coordination. The reality, though, is that third-party payers don’t reimburse for care coordination. Contemporary clinicians are lucky if they can connect for five or ten minutes via phone either just before the beginning (seven a.m.) or just after the end (seven p.m.) of their clinical day. Thus, it’s no surprise that confusion and even infighting across licenses and education levels abound.

Justine recalls a question from a student about this infighting: “But who is actually above the others? There has to be a hierarchy, right?” Justine responded that while it may feel as though there is a hierarchy, the reality is that we’re a community with a variety of skills. We don’t need to fight among ourselves. She said that just because someone with a doctorate has more education than someone with a master’s degree, that doesn’t make them better than or above the master’s-level clinician. This is a social construct that we get to question and challenge, because it no longer serves us.

the tangible difference between master’s-level and doctoral-level clinicians lies in the area of assessment
The tangible difference between master’s-level and doctoral-level clinicians lies in the area of assessment. Folks who complete doctoral programs are schooled in the practice of psychological assessment and usually graduate with the third party-payer reimbursable skill of psychological assessment.

With gravity on your side, you make it to the bottom of the mountain faster than anticipated. The sound of the river rings in your ears as you push through the bracken toward the riverbank. The grass along the shore is a deep green and only slightly prickly as you kneel down and bend over the water, cupping your hands to take a long, cool drink. Once you have quenched your thirst, you sit back on your heels and stare out across the blue water, leaning into the rays of the sun at your back. You notice a butterfly flapping its wings and landing on a nearby flower.

App Therapy Is the New In-Home Therapy

Newly-minted therapy graduates find themselves staring down the gauntlet of the licensure process, which usually entails several examinations, hours of supervision, and even more hours of direct client care. Depending upon the state where you live and the license you’re pursuing, you may find it very difficult to get a job that pays you money while you acquire hours you can count toward licensure.

Over the past few decades, the entry-level job for graduates in this predicament was in-home family therapy. Often considered the grunt work of the therapy industry, in-home family therapy requires practitioners to work long hours and drive long distances for very minimal pay. In 2014, when Larisa was working as an in-home clinician, she didn’t even make minimum wage, so she worked another job part time as an after-hours crisis counselor.

most therapy app jobs market their services to prospective clients with the promise of a readily available therapist
Today’s graduates have a new, additional option: they can become app therapists. Similar to other gig jobs like Uber Eats and Lyft, clinicians who work for therapy apps such as BetterHelp, TalkSpace, and Larkr are either populated by associate-licensed or fully licensed clinicians, and they work entirely through their company’s telehealth app interface. They tend to have very large caseloads (pitched to them as a “great opportunity to get your licensure hours”), minimal time with an assigned clinical supervisor, and demanding clinical expectations. Most therapy app jobs market their services to prospective clients with the promise of a readily available therapist, translating to the expectation that the therapist is available to the client at least via chat through most hours of the day and night.

Larisa vividly recalls many of her lectures with Dr. Anne Ramage for a number of reasons, not the least of which is that Dr. Ramage is an excellent professor and an enigmatic speaker. Among all of Larisa’s memories of Dr. Ramage’s Carl Whitaker quotes and experiential roleplays, she recalls the professor advising time and again that “in-home jobs will be waiting for you as soon as you graduate. They’re tough. You need to be ready. But they’ll give you excellent experience in working with families.” Then Dr. Ramage discussed the MFT techniques from that particular lecture that might apply to in-home work, and she explained the basic safety strategies of which in-home clinicians needed to be aware.

When Larisa graduated, she did indeed take a job as an in-home family therapist. The night before her first day, she reviewed the strategies she had learned from Dr. Ramage:

1. Arrive five minutes early and look up the homes you’ll be visiting in advance so you can plan your parking strategy. Never schedule sessions late in the evening or after dark.

2. Be ready to set clear and consistent boundaries, and for those boundaries to be tested.

3. Pack a change of clothes and hand sanitizer.

4. Review your agency’s privacy policies.

5. When you enter someone’s home, assess for safety and your own exit strategy. Although it is rare that clients will ever mean you harm, things can and do get out of hand when you are in the family’s own space. You get to protect yourself first.

This survival guide doesn’t apply to folks who are working for therapy apps, but the need for both support and coping strategies is no less acute. If you’re working for a therapy app, we, the authors, offer you deep compassion and the following tips:

so it’s essential for you to decide how long you can sustain working for a therapy app before you go the way of a younger Larisa and start losing your hair and developing insomnia
1. Plan an exit strategy. What does this mean? It means a human being can’t sustain years of work at the rate demanded by therapy apps. So, it’s essential for you to decide how long you can sustain working for a therapy app before you go the way of a younger Larisa and start losing your hair and developing insomnia.

2. Find a supervisor outside the therapy app. Yes, you will probably have to pay for this supervision, and that will likely cause financial stress. However, it is crucial for you to have a guide whose sole investment is in you and who exists outside the system in which you work, to help you regain perspective and hold boundaries around things like time management and availability.

3. Remember that any symptoms of burnout (i.e., signs of physical or emotional distress) you’re experiencing are likely the cause of moral injury — harm caused by the system in which you work — rather than any fault of your own (we’ll discuss these concepts in more detail in the next section of this chapter).

4. Manage your expectations for yourself. However, you envisioned your therapy experience, it likely did not involve a smartphone application called “Better-something.” You can’t do depth psychotherapy in this kind of context; what you can do is help your clients with basic coping strategies and compassionate presence — sometimes, but not all the time. You’re not required to have 24/7 availability, no matter what your company tells you. Not even standard laptops can run constantly forever; they need to rest and update.

5. Reach out to your community. When you work in an online environment, it can be difficult to get your emotional needs met. Please remember to engage with other living beings outside your work environment who understand some of what you’re going through and who can show up for you.

Burnout and Moral Injury

The Realm of Our Work has changed in ways that we never imagined over the course of the collective traumas of the 2020s. Suddenly the norm is to work in a virtual therapy room, and some clients expect to have regular access to their therapist via text messages and video chat services. This isn’t what we thought the field would look like.

When Justine imagined her future as a therapist, she saw herself engulfed in a scarf, with a teacup in hand, sitting across from her client in an overstuffed chair near a small fire in a fireplace, surrounded by books. She envisioned herself helping people and feeling filled up by the work, then returning home to a pleasant evening all to herself — overall a very calm and steady way of life.

the death of any dream is an ambiguous loss that even therapists are not always good at recognizing
This is not reality. For a time, she did have the tea and the overstuffed chair, but the rest of the fantasy was just that — a fantasy. Justine now works behind a computer and sits in a rolling chair; her view is full of microphones, a ring light, and multiple monitors. For her, the change in our industry has been the death of a dream. The death of any dream is an ambiguous loss that even therapists are not always good at recognizing and finding compassion and ritual to help them move through it.

Of course, parts of what Justine imagined the life of a therapist to be all those many years ago, before she ever entered the field, were simply inaccurate. Even before teletherapy and therapy apps took over the field, the life of a therapist was rarely calm and steady. It had moments and longer periods of such calm, but the nature of therapy is to work with volatile emotions. The emotional intensity inherent to the profession impacts even the most experienced and boundaried of therapists.

Larisa’s experience differed in that she had a logical view of what life in the field would be like. She felt like she had prepared herself emotionally for the trials of holding space for people and their emotions day in and day out. She believed that this preparation would act as a shield against any future catastrophe. The sadness came when she realized that no matter how prepared she had been, the situation was worse, and far more unpredictable, than she could have imagined. She was ready for the stresses of people’s everyday lives and even for their great despair and trauma, but she was unprepared for the collective trauma of our age stepping into the therapy room and into her own life. She was totally unprepared for how political leadership would fail her and everyone else in her country during this time of great collective need.

In her younger and more impressionable years, she believed that even though power is corrosive and toxic to politicians, when they were faced with clear and present disaster, they would channel their highest selves and work to help people. Now Larisa realizes that America’s representative government has devolved into rule by the wealthy elite who use their resources to buffer themselves from the pain and the needs of their constituents. Sometimes the despair she feels is crushing. Perhaps you can relate.

as we sit with the tragedies that have befallen our profession, it is no wonder that so many therapists struggle with burnout
As we sit with the tragedies that have befallen our profession, it is no wonder that so many therapists struggle with burnout. Burnout can be defined from many perspectives. For the sake of brevity and clarity, we offer definitions of both individualized burnout and systemic burnout. Individualized burnout occurs when a person is so emotionally exhausted that they chronically struggle with depersonalization, which is emotional, physical, and cognitive numbness that makes the person unable to feel present in their own body or life.

Systemic burnout is also known as moral injury, which is when a person experiences symptoms through no fault of their own; rather, the symptoms result from harm caused by the system in which they work. Moral injury was first defined by psychiatrist Jonathan Shay as a “betrayal of what is right by someone who holds legitimate authority in a high stakes situation.” Wendy Dean, Simon Talbot, and Austin Dean expanded upon this definition when they argued for clinician burnout to be redefined as moral injury:

Moral injury occurs when we perpetrate, bear witness to, or fail to prevent an act that transgresses our deeply held moral beliefs. In the health care context, that deeply held moral belief is the oath each of us took when embarking on our paths as health care providers: Put the needs of patients first. That oath is the lynchpin [sic] of our working lives and our guiding principle when searching for the right course of action.

But as clinicians, we are increasingly forced to consider the demands of other stakeholders — the electronic medical record (EMR), the insurers, the hospital, the health care system, even our own financial security —before the needs of our patients. Every time we are forced to make a decision that contravenes our patients’ best interests, we feel a sting of moral injustice. Over time, these repetitive insults amass into moral injury.

The article quoted above speaks solely to the experience of medical doctors, but its implications are clear for the chronic systemic burnout faced by so many in helping professions, including (but not limited to) therapists, medical technicians, nurses, and case managers. Helping professionals are increasingly placed in a double bind; that is, they’re being placed in situations from which there is no escape, and they’re being asked to perform at least two mutually exclusive actions simultaneously. They’re being asked to care for clients but also to please many other stakeholders, all without the amount or quality of support that they need. Just like all double binds, this is an untenable situation that causes distress within the clinician.

there’s not enough self-care in the world to account for a system that’s set up as a no-win situation
We, the authors, appreciate the distinction between burnout and moral injury. The concept of moral injury takes the onus off the individual, because there’s not enough self-care in the world to account for a system that’s set up as a no-win situation. When larger systems talk about “burnout,” that terminology allows them to let themselves off the hook for the clinician’s pain. The system can then pass the problem back to the clinician as a personal failing, rather than a systemic one. The therapy field is currently crying out for systemic change. We cannot do everything and be everything to everyone. It is impossible, and it is destroying us.

The butterfly’s orange and black wings flutter back and forth as it buries its face in a Black-eyed Susan. You contemplate the effort that it took for this butterfly to metamorphose from a caterpillar. It went through a violent transformation in the cocoon to become this creature. It’s not a pretty process. The butterfly must flap and flap and flap its wings inside the cocoon to strengthen them. It can be a difficult struggle to watch, and an onlooker often wants to help the butterfly be free from its enclosure.

But if it’s released from the cocoon early, the butterfly won’t have the strength to fly and survive. It must struggle to become strong. As you stare at the butterfly, considering its beautiful wings, you start to breathe into your own bodily awareness. You notice the many places where you’re holding tension and feeling stiff and sore. Perhaps you have also been flapping your metaphorical wings, becoming something new.

Grieving Tools — The Pain Paradox

As you might remember from chapter 2, pain can be a pivotal part of the meaning-making process. When paired with reflection time, pain can help us learn about our core values and live a life in accordance with them.

the pain paradox explores the tension between pain as both catalyst for change and a state of prolonged suffering
Yet because we work in a field that values sacrifice and the pain that entails, therapists are also far more susceptible to what Freud would call the martyr complex, and what we refer to as hero/savior/sacrifice syndrome. The pain paradox explores the tension between pain as both catalyst for change and a state of prolonged suffering. Particularly in helping professions, suffering for our work is often framed as positive, meaningful, or altruistic. This harmful social construct can lead clinicians to stay in harmful jobs “for the sake of the clients” and sacrifice their own health in the process.

The pain paradox invites clinicians to question their social constructs around both pain and meaning-making. In the therapy room, the pain paradox is a tool that clinicians can use to help clients who are themselves engaging in harmful behaviors for the sake of “meaningful pain.” Let us explore how you can use the tool of the pain paradox as you navigate your personal struggles outside of session, and how to use this tool with clients inside the therapy space.


Pain is not the enemy, nor is it to be avoided at all costs. Sometimes what brings clients to therapy is the erroneous idea that we, their therapist, can help them learn how to disengage with their feelings entirely because these feelings are causing them pain. Of course, the reality is that we can teach them distress tolerance skills to be present with their pain and their feelings so they can learn to listen to the important messages carried by their feelings.

However, clients can sometimes mistake pain for purpose. We see this frequently with our creative clients. So often the idea of the “crazy artist” takes hold of clients. Several of Justine’s clients were terrified of feeling better. They believed that their sickness and the distress it caused fueled their art. But the reality was that after going through treatment, these clients were all able to continue making amazing art, and in fact they did so with more frequency and focus. Another part of the process of working with these folks is helping them see that they’re full human beings who are more than just the art they craft.

Many fear that if they lose the art then they lose themselves and they no longer matter. However, in our experience, part of their healing journey entails exploring areas of their life outside of art. Eventually, they come to see their art as but an aspect or a planet within the vast cosmos of their lives.


For many of us, the desire to make meaning from our own pain drew us to the field of psychotherapy. Most therapists have experienced some type of mental distress, whether it’s childhood trauma, an eating disorder, bullying, discrimination, or an abusive relationship with chemicals. For many of us, surviving this kind of pain was only the first phase of the healing process, with the second phase being meaning-making.

although our work as therapists is absolutely meaningful, it is also back-breakingly painful at times
The pain paradox is a gentle invitation for therapists to carefully consider ways to cultivate meaning and joy outside the therapy field. Although our work as therapists is absolutely meaningful, it is also back-breakingly painful at times. If you don’t have other avenues or ways to make meaning and find purpose, you’ll find it even more challenging to take breaks from the field, regardless of how long such a break lasts, because you struggle to see the “you” outside the office. You need not try something life altering or huge. When Larisa was recovering from a severe case of moral injury, she began making playlists, an activity she had not engaged in since her college days. This small daily activity helped her to begin to reconnect with playful and creative energies outside her clinical and professional work.

The difficult message that Justine received was that her time as a direct-care therapist was coming to a close. After over a decade of work, and so many clients helped, she began to feel that her meaning-making was now to be found in the classroom, on the stage, and on the page. She experienced a great deal of pain as a therapist during the pandemic and the social justice uprising, but the pain invited her to consider where new meaning could form. The answer was that it was time to guide the next generation of clinicians and to hold the hands of those who are still in the trenches. As of this writing, Justine is currently working on the slow transition out of direct client care.

Due North: Self of the Therapist

One of the struggles inherent in walking the dialectic between the system and the individual is despair. In the case of moral injury, which is caused by a series of broken systems subjecting clinicians to harmful double binds, it can feel like there’s little or nothing for a therapist to do beyond retiring from the field. While this certainly is an option, we offer you another one: harm reduction and intentional activism.

As you may already know, the harm-reduction model of addiction recovery focuses on making small, actionable changes that mitigate abusing behaviors, rather than prescribing total sobriety. Our intention is to invite you as a clinician to assess the harm you’re currently facing in your career and how it’s affecting you. You can’t immediately change the systems in which you practice therapy, but you can make a concerted effort to mitigate the negative impact that these systems have upon you.

Some ways that you might limit the harm you experience include limiting the number of hours you work or the types of clients or clinical presentations with which you work. Perhaps you currently work in a place with an unreliable schedule, and that causes you distress; is it possible to have a more structured schedule? If you’re not being given time for breaks or lunch, is this a conversation you can have and a boundary you can set with your site supervisor? These can be small or large changes, but any change can go a long way to help mitigate the harm you’re experiencing.

as clinicians, we’re trained to think of harm reduction solely from the perspective of our clients. But when our current systems are causing us harm as well, then we must consider our safety
As clinicians, we’re trained to think of harm reduction solely from the perspective of our clients. But when our current systems are causing us harm as well, then we must consider our safety and energy levels, too. As we discussed in the previous chapter, we’re not caring for our clients when we’re modeling self-harming behaviors.

If you work with insurance, then you’re likely all too familiar with the time and content constraints placed on the clinical hour. It’s becoming increasingly common to only reimburse for the 90837, 53–60-minute therapy billing code if the clinician is providing a specialized service like EMDR or en vivo exposure therapy. Even in instances where a clinician accurately assesses for additional time, insurers that enforce these restrictions will likely not authorize you to bill the 90837 code no matter how much additional clinical documentation you provide.

In a scenario in which you know your client needs the 7 extra minutes but is paneled with an insurance provider who will not reimburse for a full hour of therapy, you can reframe those extra 7 minutes as a gift you’re giving to your client rather than ending promptly at the 52.5 minute mark or spending hours of additional time arguing with insurance, all for naught.

Is this an ideal solution? No. But perhaps it is a solution that honors your therapeutic ethics, the client’s therapy needs, and your own time. In the harm-reduction approach, there are no perfect solutions. The goal is to mitigate harm, not to solve problems perfectly. Consider what would make this even a little bit better right now.

With the energy you have left from harm reduction, you can then make discerning choices about where to advocate for systemic change. Do you want to call your local legislators, join your licensure’s national advocacy committee, engage a colleague in a conversation around privilege and clinical biases, or add another pro bono/low-sliding scale client to your caseload?

when Justine was working with her client who was dying, each session felt much longer than sixty minutes
Another consideration is that some sessions require more emotional energy than others, but sessions are reimbursed based on units of time, not units of emotional intensity. When Justine was working with her client who was dying, each session felt much longer than sixty minutes. The amount of emotional energy required in those sixty minutes was simply greater than that required in a session with a client who was struggling with, for example, social anxiety. We do not intend to minimize the struggle of social anxiety in any way. Rather, our intent here is to try to convey something that in modern times we struggle to quantify and to express: time is not the only measure of value within a discrete event.

Justine’s practice runs entirely on a cash basis, so she didn’t have to worry about insurance reimbursement. Ultimately, however, she was not paid more for more emotionally intense work. Insurance is its own challenge in these more complex cases, as the clinician must find clinical language to express the work that was done in the therapy room. “Fanficcing the afterlife” is not likely to get reimbursed. You can imagine — because you’ve probably had a similar experience—sitting down at your computer after a long day of emotionally fraught therapy sessions and then struggling to find the clinically appropriate language to, in effect, prove that you did therapy worthy of insurance reimbursement.

the image of the therapist as “giver” implies that we should want to give of our time and energy and shouldn’t ask for (or expect) anything in return
It feels as though we’re fighting not just for pay, but also for basic recognition and respect for the work we do. The world doesn’t realize that we’re performing the roles of multiple different types of healers, and we’re expected to do so with grace and quiet. The image of the therapist as “giver” implies that we should want to give of our time and energy and shouldn’t ask for (or expect) anything in return, including a living wage. Unfortunately, within capitalism this is exploitative and unsustainable.

We knew that the work would be hard, but many therapists find themselves surprised and saddened by the lack of structural support and the very real systemic reality that our current societal systems make it harder to do our work. Sometimes we’re forced to choose between doing the intense work of meaningful therapy and conserving enough energy for ourselves so that we have something left at the end of the workday. This dilemma is not unique to the therapy profession; it plagues all the major helping professions, including doctors, veterinarians, nurses, teachers, medical aides, and home caregivers.

Due West: Supervision

Supervisees, if you find that you’re already experiencing symptoms of burnout, take a moment to consider whether these symptoms might be more correctly described as an indication of moral injury. Is your employer putting you in a double bind? If so, bring this information to your supervisor and ask for support. If your supervisor is new to the concept of moral injury, feel free to show them this book, or link them to an article. If they won’t engage with this line of inquiry, that is great information that might suggest you should seek additional or different supervision. You deserve to have a supervisor who wants to change the system to improve equity for your future career.

Supervisors, you’re in a powerful position to move the field in a more equitable direction. Even if you’re not a site supervisor, you get the opportunity to meet with preclinical therapists who seek you out for your guidance. These preclinical therapists work in a variety of contexts, and you get to hear about the moral injuries firsthand. We invite you to begin to tell your supervisees when you see that they’re caught in a double bind and offer them the harm-reduction strategies that you feel comfortable sharing. It’s not uncommon for supervisees to believe that any burnout symptoms they’re experiencing are due to their own naivete, and it’s crucial for them to understand that while they do have a role in their own experience, they can only control so much.

supervisees depend on you to guide them through their metamorphosis, and if you find that you don’t have the stamina to sit with them as they move through the process, then it’s probably time for you to take a step back
This is a hard message, supervisors, but you must also pay attention to your own levels of burnout and moral injury. Supervisees depend on you to guide them through their metamorphosis, and if you find that you don’t have the stamina to sit with them as they move through the process, then it’s probably time for you to take a step back from providing direct supervision. And sometimes we don’t realize that we’re part of the morally injurious problem until we gain new information.

For instance, Justine used to take on unpaid graduate-level interns, which she made sense of because she was giving them so much of her time. And while she indeed was offering them her sage wisdom, charging clients for their services without offering the interns any of that income made Justine part of the systemic problem that leads to moral injury.

Due East: Education

Students, please be advised that it’s not your sole responsibility to avoid burnout, even when it’s presented to you that way. You’re often told that if you do everything “right” and “win” at self-care, then burnout will never happen to you. This is disingenuous. Burnout can happen to any of us, even when we have the best of intentions and a comprehensive self-care plan. And of course, the standard conception of burnout assumes that you’re solely responsible for your well-being, which we know is not true. You might experience moral injury instead. Yes, it’s important to have a self-care plan, of course. Yet it is not foolproof, and it’s important to recognize the signs of toxicity in your workplace, both in terms of interpersonal relationships with other employees and more structurally broken or toxic systems.

Sadly, the mental health world is not immune to the challenges that all systems face. In some ways, we are worse at facing such challenges because we think we’re better. We believe we could never exploit workers, because we know how not to; but that’s not the case. Many new therapists are exploited by being asked to work for free during internships, to work outside of the scope of their practice, or to work with minimal supervision with some of the toughest clients in the business. This is unreasonable, and yet it’s the way it’s been done for years. We invite you to fight back against it.

Refuse to be a part of systems that wish to do you harm in the name of doing good works. If you are able to choose your practicum site, get curious with them about how their system functions and how interns are treated. Ask other interns for their true and honest opinions. This will always be hard work, but you don’t need to be the proverbial coal miner who needs a canary. The systems are broken, and the only way they’ll change is for folks to refuse to be a part of them. We know there’s a power dynamic here with you at the bottom, so please find a teacher or supervisor who shares your worldview and allow them to help you work through this process.

even if you’re not a practicum advisor, you can have an incredible impact on the early working life of your students
Teachers, please be this person for your students. Even if you’re not a practicum advisor, you can have an incredible impact on the early working life of your students. They need to know the realities of what’s out there. We don’t just treat clients; we also have to work in a broken system that’s largely stacked against us. Insurance companies don’t respect the work we do, and we’re not paid fairly. People get burned out and leave the field. These are not fun messages to give during your lecture on Virginia Satir, yet they’re true. The world she once practiced in has changed dramatically.

Insurance companies won’t pay for you to do a co-therapy experiential family diorama. Allowing students to believe that they’ll be able to do the work they dream of in any scenario is a bait-and-switch. Yes, they can do this work in certain circumstances. The theories are important, and we love them; our forebears and their messages are our legacy. Also, the world is not set up to practice in the way that we teach students it is. There is a balance to walk between theory and practice, and this is an opportunity to set students up for success by helping them be aware of these dangers on the front end.

If you’re a teacher and you’re feeling burned out, of course you are. If you’ve been working with students who are collectively traumatized, that takes a lot of effort. Justine loves teaching, but it’s hard work to present these realities to wide-eyed students who just want to do some good after so much awful has happened in the world. Many teachers go back to what they know best: clinical work. It’s hard to be a truth-teller, and it’s especially hard for those who want to continue to teach in the old ways, as students are becoming more aware of the real world and want to know how what they learn in school applies to folks who have different bodies, socioeconomic statuses, and political views.

not all teachers are prepared to have these conversations. If you’re experiencing burnout for any of these reasons or others not mentioned here, please know that you’re not alone
Not all teachers are prepared to have these conversations. If you’re experiencing burnout for any of these reasons or others not mentioned here, please know that you’re not alone. Many teachers feel this way. You are allowed to step away from education and return to clinical practice, or go on to something else, or get additional training so you can feel more prepared. This life is full of choices, and even if you thought teaching would spark joy, if it doesn’t that’s okay.

[section:Due South: Death and Love}You pause by the river’s edge and decide to stretch. You reach high up to the sky, remembering the towering yeti that you met, and you wonder where she is now. You notice the thought and allow it to drift away, like the leaves you see drifting downstream. You open your arms wide like the red-winged blackbird, and you remember its call, and all it did to help you on your journey. You reach low toward your toes and remember the ‘merperson’ diving deep into the cool, still pond and the lessons they taught you about the duality of nature. You rock gently from side to side, remembering the playful honey badger who refused to conform. You rise back up and place your hands on your heart, soaking in the feeling of gratitude for all you have learned, soaking up this place in this moment.

You listen to the rushing river and begin to join your breath to the rhythmic sound, and then you lie down by the water’s edge. You reach into your pack and take out your journal, placing it on your chest. You lie here for a long time, sometimes thinking and sometimes drafting the contours of the region into your journal, always returning to your breath. After a while you decide it’s time to move again, but first you pause and consider that you can decide in any moment that this is the death of that moment, of that practice, and that you are reborn into the world.

In this moment as you prepare to get up from your rest, it’s the death of your meditation practice. Death does not need to be full of sorrow. There are moments in life when we can choose to end and decide what we’ll leave on the grass when we depart and what we’ll take with us. What will you leave and what will you take with you in this moment of death?

In this penultimate realm of our grief, you’ve been faced with the wreckage of our field
In this penultimate realm of our grief, you’ve been faced with the wreckage of our field. So much about the way we practice has changed, and so much of what we love about the work of therapy is lost. As we sit together in these ruins, we invite you to consider which aspects of the work you might want to lay to rest — to, in essence, return to the earth. Perhaps teletherapy has been a gift to you and your family, opening up windows of time and possibility that you didn’t have when you were consumed with a commute. In this case, you might say goodbye to in-person therapy and put that metaphorical stuffed chair to rest. The rebirth of your clinical practice lies in virtual healing. Perhaps your expectations of control and autonomy are dying. You can let go of the expectation to be the best, calmest clinician and instead begin the process of becoming an authentic and present therapist — present to both the calm and the turmoil. There can be relief in letting go. You did what you could. Now it’s time to rise and decide what you’ll do next.

Larisa A. Garski, MA, LMFT & Justine Mastin, MA, LMFT Larisa A. Garski, MA, LMFT, is a psychotherapist and the Clinical Director at Empowered Therapy in Chicago, IL. She specializes in working with individuals, families, and young adults who identify as outside the mainstream—such as those in the geek and LGBTQIA communities. She regularly appears at pop culture conventions, speaking on panels related to mental health and geek wellness.

Justine Mastin, MA, LMFT, LADC, E-RYT 200 is the owner/founder of Blue Box Counseling, a private practice in Minneapolis. Justine also specializes in working with clients who self-identify as being outside the mainstream—such as those in the geek, secular, and LGBTQIA communities. Justine is also the fearless leader of YogaQuest, a yoga organization that blends geek narratives with yoga to reach this underserved population.

Together, Garski and Mastin co-host the Starship Therapise podcast where they explore self-help tools and psychology through the lens of fandom. Their latest book, Starship Therapise: Using Fanfiction to Rewrite Your Life boldly goes where none have gone before; into the practical use of fanfiction in and outside of counseling and psychotherapy.