capturing the beautiful calamity of healing in therapy

All therapists deserve to be paid

I work in Southern California and have been lucky enough to secure both part-time and full-time employment opportunities throughout my 3000-hour (500 left to go!) internship. I refuse to provide my therapeutic expertise for free and haven’t done so since the day I completed graduate school. Maybe it sounds cocky and maybe it sounds narrow-minded, but I find it absolutely appalling that we enable this “unpaid intern” movement, as if it is an acceptable ritual when entering the professional workforce.

Why am I so repulsed? As interns, we are expected to do everything a licensed therapist does, with the exception that we work under someone else’s professional license and need to consult with that person regularly for supervision. However, between therapist to client, in the thick of the sessions, in the art of therapy, nothing is different. The work is just as intensive, and the therapy matters just as much. Therefore, why would I be willing to give myself away for free?

I don’t know about all my colleagues, but I need a paycheck. Even when pushing aside my self-worth and how I value myself, I need a sustainable living wage. As my experience and career has developed, I believe that my monetary value has as well, and I’ve had to make painstaking decisions to leave jobs because such compensation was not provided. Again, is this cocky? I don’t think so. I think it’s about self-respect, and if I can’t embody taking care of needs that matter to me, how can I expect my clients to do so either?

The normalcy of unpaid opportunities only perpetuates the luxury of financial privilege. Why? In order to accept unpaid work, you often need additional financial support OR you need to be willing to work multiple positions in order to stay afloat. And, oftentimes, you need to ALSO figure out a way to do this in spite of tackling the exorbitant student loans it takes to fund the lengthy education to become a therapist in the first place!

But because we have to collect our hours and because we have to beef up our experiences and resumes, we are supposed to accept (and be grateful!) for any position that comes our way. I recall making close to minimum wage during one of my first internships (while juggling two other positions) before landing full-time work. Countless professionals told me that I was lucky enough to have a job that pays anything. 

Honestly, why do we tolerate this!?

When we are unpaid or underpaid, the message we receive is, we don’t value you or your services enough to provide you something in exchange for what you provide us. Oftentimes, this only maintains a toxic workplace culture lacking company loyalty, limited employee satisfaction and growth, and high turnover rates.

On the flip side, paying therapists their worth establishes the notion that this job matters and that we value your work.  I doubt many of us entered this profession with the expectation of becoming rich and famous. Rather, we have a passion or a calling to do this kind of work. That love for what we do matters- but we also deserve comfort and security. into the helping profession to become rich and famous. But we do deserve comfort and security.

 

I understand mental health lacks funding, and I understand that many organizations struggle to stay afloat due to budget constraints and management issues. But, nevertheless, this seems to be a chicken-or-the-egg problem. Who started the dynamic? The companies that needed therapists, but couldn’t pay them? Or the therapists that needed experience, and accepted ones without pay?

Yes, as interns, direct client experience, theory training, and solid group and individual supervision are invaluable, but these hardly matter if we cannot pay our bills. The relationship between employer and employee, between organization and therapist, should be no different from any other relationship. Respect and mutual understanding matter. And just like any other relationship, when we receive less than we give, when we accept less than we deserve, we either let our self-esteem plummet…or we leave.

Both these situations only harm the very people we are here to serve: the clients. A resentful, burnt-out therapist struggles to stay present in session just as a revolving door of clinicians demonstrates instability and inconsistency (oftentimes, the very things our clients struggle with most).

In arguing all this, I recognize my own limitations; I’m not a businesswoman, and I don’t know much about the money or the funding sources behind the scenes. I also don’t believe the motives behind unpaid or underpaid work is meant to be malicious. Nevertheless, I’m disheartened by any movement that emphasizes strong client care with a disregard for the provider care.

I’m not pointing fingers, and I don’t think anyone is the bad guy here. I do know, however, that if we therapists refused to work for free, if we, as a collective whole, stood up proudly represented ourselves and our backgrounds, if we valued the prestige and meaning of what we do to its highest capacity, employers and organizations would have to listen. Something would have to change.

I don’t know where that path will lead us, and I may just be one intern in a sea of mental health professionals, but we create the reputation and limits we expect others to uphold, and because of that, we have to start somewhere.