You see a person drowning in the distance. Maybe you’re a life guard, a strong swimmer, or just a person that feels compelled to help others. You immediately dive in, praying you can get to them before they go under. But just as you reach them, just as help has arrived for this panicing person, they do something strange. The drowning person pulls you under.
It’s a known fact that drowning people, although they desperately want the help, will struggle against their rescuers and actually pull them under too, putting both people at risk. It’s such a known and accepted phenomenon that lifeguards receive training so that they can rescue drowning people while minimizing the risk to themselves. It’s just good practice and no one would argue against it.
People often use the metaphor of drowning to describe what it feels like to be overwhelmed by stress and other issues. I think it’s an apt metaphor, especially when you consider the way people act when they are in a crisis. They very often struggle against those who try to help them, alternating between pushing them away and dragging them down with them. And I’m not just talking about therapists here, the friends and family of the person in crisis experience the same treatment. The problem is, no one gets training on how to safely help the person. Friends and family are told to be supportive, but they’re also told to give tough love. They’re told they need to be prepared to do whatever it takes, but then later told they need to cut ties in order to set boundaries and protect themselves. Well which is it? It doesn’t seem that anyone has an answer, and I’m wondering why that is.
When I was a child at the beach a boy once told me that if you ever try to save a drowning person you need to first punch them in the face so they wont fight you. I feel like I’ve seen therapists try this same strategy with their clients. We’ve of course also heard the saying to let them “hit rock bottom” first. That way they’ll be so down and out they can’t fight you anymore. Can you imagine a lifeguard waiting for someone to drown before going out to rescue them? It doesn’t seem like a moral or ethical solution, but it’s the philosophy a lot of people have when it comes to addiction and mental health issues. Wait until the person doesn’t have any fight left, then intervene.
Something that I’m really hoping will change is that therapists will get real training on how to keep from drowning themselves, just like lifeguards do. Right now the attitude is “Hey, you should have thought about the risks when you decided to become a therapist. It’s part of the job”. I understand where that attitude is coming from, but the fact of the matter is that we have so much burn-out in this field and that’s not helping anyone. Go to any mental health agency and notice how young the workforce is. That’s because therapists don’t last long before getting fed up and leaving the field. We need to find a better answer than just “suck it up”.