What mental health professionals should know about money

Co-authored with Sylvia A. Malcore, Ph.D., APBB, Christine Isham, CFP (Certified Financial Planner) and James Windell, MA.

When Caleb* was working on his PhD. In clinical psychology, he took courses in assessment, cognitive behavioral therapy, and abnormal psychology. After graduating and a year of postdoctoral research, he believed he was ready to start his career as a psychologist. While one would expect a sense of accomplishment and joy upon the completion of his graduate education, he felt he was drowning in over $100,000 in debt.

Caleb believed that all of his future decisions would now be dictated by his debt rather than his career goals. As he reviewed his final years, Caleb could see how he had accumulated his overwhelming debt. There was, of course, the cost of graduate school, and then there was the cost of moving to a state a thousand miles away to do his internship. Added to this were the costs of preparing for the Examination in Professional Practice in Psychology (EPPP), fees and living expenses.

Accepting a position as a psychologist after completing his postdoc training was another big step. Not only did Caleb feel stuck as he contemplated changing his financial future, he also realized what he hadn’t been taught in college — how to manage his finances. No professor or supervisor had ever discussed money management or financial planning with Caleb.

And Caleb is not alone. Two of the four of us writers also felt at times that we didn’t know anything about money. In addition, at some point we had concerns about our financial future. Some of these concerns are addressed by Windell and Meekhof in a chapter entitled “Facing Finances Without Fear” of their book entitled “Facing Finances Without Fear”. A widow’s guide to healing. This chapter is by far one of her most read chapters by widows and other professionals.

Aside from losses, there were other times when we felt completely unprepared to deal with things like debt, investing, and planning for retirement. So we started talking to other mental health professionals.

From our conversations, we found that those working in the mental health field seem reluctant to talk about money—especially their own money. While it is true that mental health professionals discuss many challenging issues with their clients and the job requires familiarization with many subjects, the issue of money and finances continues to appear to be a source of unease. Rarely have we found a psychologist or other mental health professional who has demonstrated a clear approach to achieving their financial goals. After reflecting on what we learned, we turned to a certified financial planner to better understand what was going on.

Here are three reasons we found why mental health professionals may have trouble with money:

1. Mental health professionals can feel a deep sense of guilt when they make money off of other people’s suffering.

At times, when working with economically disadvantaged clients, Emma* felt that while she admired the patients for seeking treatment and recognizing the need for their care, it felt like she was being paid to listen to someone who was about her challenges spoke. Emma felt that if these issues were related to financial difficulties, it was inherently “wrong” to charge her for them.

Mental health professionals often discuss all sorts of topics with their clients. While financial challenges may arise in therapy, the issue of exchanging money for a professional service may be addressed by the administrative staff rather than the therapist. Joel Yager and Jerald Kay, writing in TThe Journal of Nervous and Mental Disease, point to the discomfort some providers may have when discussing money in the therapeutic setting. However, Richard Trachtman, who has written on the subject of “taboo” money, had his say in an article in New therapist says there are some signs that this taboo on discussing money is changing.

2. Mental health professionals, like many people in our society, often lack comprehensive financial literacy.

Mental health professionals require years of training but may be ignorant of financial issues. They focus on helping others solve their problems, but often don’t take the time to address their own money problems. This can prevent them from realizing their true wealth potential.

Certified financial planner Christine Isham says, “People involved in mental health often have a great deal of empathy for others, but they also often have tremendous levels of guilt — especially when they’re doing well financially.”

As mental health professionals, it is important to value ourselves, and that includes our financial well-being. It is important to understand that we can best help others when we also take care of ourselves. When we’re worried about an office payment, it can take away from the attention our customers need.

3. Many mental health professionals are often good at caring for others, but do not always listen to their own advice.

Most psychologists, like psychiatrists, counselors, and social workers, would probably agree that their job is to support others in their pursuit of well-being and in achieving their goals. However, they sometimes neglect themselves in the process. They do this by working long hours, taking on the stress of others and, fitting to our topic, failing to learn about finance in order to successfully plan for the future.

By making mental health professionals aware of this, we hope to encourage them to learn more about finance and professional advice. This will help mental health professionals practice financial self-care.

*If first names are used, they are intended to represent composite experiences noted by the authors and not a specific person.

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