How Counselors Practice — and Preach – Self-Care in Turbulent Times

How Counselors Practice — and Preach – Self-Care in Turbulent Times

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A pandemic, a bitter election year, ugly racial divisions, a severe economic decline … just one of those issues is enough to cause anxiety. Mix them together, add a dash of social isolation, and you’ve got a recipe for a mental health crisis.

“Mental health is robustness. It’s peace within yourself and the ability to function optimally,” explains Paula Gill Lopez, PhD, associate professor of psychology. “Self-care includes the steps we take to feel our best.” For some people, exercise helps relieve that anxiety and achieve peace. For others, indulging in a hobby or working in the yard does the trick. The challenge for educators, school psychologists, and other caregivers she deals with, Dr. Gill Lopez says, is that they’re by nature self-sacrificing, so used to putting others first that they often don’t take the time to check in with themselves.

In her role as co-chair of the Connecticut School Safety & Crisis Response Committee, her workshops for teachers and school counselors begin by persuading them that it’s unethical to ignore their own self-care. “They often need permission to take time for themselves. I point out that they’ll be better practitioners, with more patience and more resilience, if they are mentally healthy. Their burnout rate will be lower, and they’ll be modeling positive self-regulation for students.”

Jocelyn Novella, PhD, assistant professor of counselor education, is also spending time in the community, volunteering as a therapist for healthcare professionals who are feeling overwhelmed. In order to keep all participants healthy, the sessions are conducted virtually. That’s fine with Dr. Novella, who feels that telemental health services are here to stay.

“I did research comparing online and in-person counseling before Covid-19 struck, and found that for issues such as anxiety and depression the outcomes were the same,” she says. “Our students are now providing these services in schools and in their clinical placements, and for the most part, are doing well. But because telemental health is only going to grow in demand, we’re working on creating a module to train students on how to deliver these services most effectively.” Ensuring the technology they use is secure, maintaining eye contact and discerning emotion over the computer, plus procedures for handling a crisis remotely are some of the issues that students will need to master.

As for the students within GSEAP, Evelyn Bilias Lolis, PhD, associate professor, psychology and education, believes they’ve demonstrated tremendous flexibility this past year.

“They’ve really risen to the challenge of change and of learning in a different way. It helps that our cohort classes are close, so they find strength in one another.”

Students often participate in small group breakout sessions online that mimic the group work they would normally be doing in person, for example. And Dr. Bilias Lolis makes it a point to check in with students individually, reminding them to take time out to do something that makes them feel joyful. “So much of what they do is cognitively taxing,” she says. “Encouraging them to think about something that feeds them in another way is so important.”

While challenges remain for students, teachers, and caregivers, the good news is that the technical hurdles of teaching and counseling through digital devices have settled down, and the initial anxiety that went along with last spring’s upheaval has lessened.

“The school psychology interns I teach are beginning to acclimate to this ever-evolving normal, and I attribute that to the mindfulness practice they’ve developed throughout their three years in the program,” says Dr. Gill Lopez. “Mindfulness makes it easier to ‘be with’ whatever one is facing in the moment.”



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