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Quiet Eyes: Counseling During Ongoing Disasters

Wednesday, July 22, 2020   (0 Comments)
Posted by: Eve Rogerson, MA, NCC, LCMHCA

Since being asked to write this post, I have struggled with how to start it; indeed, I have struggled with how to write it at all. Not just where to start, but where to go. I received an email earlier this week sharing an opportunity for a free online Zoom conference covering, in the same one-day conference, COVID-19, racism, police brutality, and telehealth. This in its simplicity, grouping these crises, traumas, and challenges together as part of an email subject line, clarified things for me: with so much of great significance happening all at once, we are unlikely to know where to start. And that’s okay.

Initially, I relied on my research skills and the input of others with broader and more diverse experiences and insight. I read interviews with clinicians about their strategies and coping tips while working in the field at the present moment. I reviewed work on disaster models, resiliency, vicarious trauma, systemic racism, crisis intervention, and telehealth. I reached out to colleagues and friends in the field and sought input from other local clinicians through social media. I took time during my own meditation practice to reflect on what might summarize the experience of being a mental health professional right now. I reengaged my master’s degree focus on the biopsychosocial model of counseling to process how the different parts of both my clients’ and my own experiences were having an impact.

It was here that I stopped, because it is here that the uniqueness of our situation became apparent: as clinicians, we are currently experiencing the same trauma as our clients, as counselors and as individuals. So, in the spirit of veracity, I decided to write from that more personal place: what has come up for me, just one counselor, working to support clients during these ongoing disasters.

While our clients may be navigating mental health challenges and diagnoses that we do not share, we are all affected - albeit to different degrees and in different ways – by the impact of health anxiety, grief, loneliness, adjusting to new protocols and technology, sitting with uncertainty, oppression, racism, and injustice. Asking, “How are you?” right now is a question that I have had difficulty in answering, to the extent that I’ve requested that friends hold tight for a day or two until I can come up with an authentic response. These intersecting issues and identities make for a complex answer to an ostensibly simple question.

I am fortunate that I can intentionally reflect on and process my experiences using reflective practices learned during my training. Those skills also include using bracketing and suppression to regulate myself so as to ethically practice with my clients without the interference and potential harm of countertransference.

It is here, though, that I find the balance tipping: it is one thing to support a client struggling with generalized anxiety, for example, and validating their fear while working to neutralize the source of their fear, which is not inherently harmful. But what do we do when the client’s fears and impediments are very much real – and we share some of them?

An immunocompromised client who fears for their life because of a virus that is as yet not fully understood or under control.

A Black client who is terrified of being killed every day because of the color of their skin.

A client who cannot access mental health services because they don’t have a working computer or health insurance that covers telehealth.

A client who has lost a loved one to COVID-19.

A client who is lonely; grieving the losses of life events like birthday parties, weddings, and graduations, and is struggling to adjust.

In the eye of a cyclone, there is quiet: it is the calmest part of the storm and yet it is right next to the eyewall, which contains the storm’s strongest winds. I believe that clinicians are creating these quiet eyes for clients right now such that they can hold space just as they usually would in any given session. But the fact that the eyewall now contains fears and threats that the client and clinician may synchronously hold, possibly in every single session, is new. This does not mean we cannot calm the storm, but it is unprecedented territory for all of us as we navigate our therapeutic alliances.

As a profession, we champion resilience, navigate trauma, skillfully manage countertransference, and are ambassadors for hope. Counselors are trained in how to cope, recover, and heal. In the ongoing spirit of veracity, while I can’t offer any certainty of how this will be done, I do know this: as a profession, we have the resilience to weather the storm.

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