This is what they’ve trained for, just as other frontline workers have.
As the world works toward physical, social, and economic healing in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, so many of us are left struggling against the strain of mental health conditions.
And they seem much more intense than before the outbreak.
Feelings of anxiety and depression related to COVID-19 are
Many of us are dealing with collective grief as we cope with the reality that our world will never be the same again.
The mental health professionals who spoke to Healthline have noticed this increase in anxiety, depression, grief, and trauma responses as well.
“In general, a great deal of sessions have focused on managing the stress, fear, anger, anxiety, depression, grief, and trauma associated with the pandemic,” a licensed clinical social worker tells Healthline.
For the sake of protecting the privacy of her clients, we’ll refer to her as Ms. Smith.
The private practice where Smith works has recently transitioned to teletherapy services for all clients.
She was able to share her experiences with this change, saying that it’s been stressful, and in-person appointments are typically preferred, but that her clients are grateful for the opportunity to receive counseling during times of such uncertainty.
“Whether clients are self-quarantining at home or part of the essential workforce, they are experiencing distress,” Smith says.
It makes sense why we’re all so much more stressed, right? It makes sense why we’re finding it harder to self-motivate and to use therapeutic techniques to address our mental health concerns.
But if this is what everyone is feeling, it would follow that our therapists are just as vulnerable to these stressors, too. Does this mean that we shouldn’t talk with them about it?
According to mental health experts, not talking about COVID-19 related stressors is the opposite of what we need to do to work toward healing.
Read that again. Once more.
A lot of people feel uncomfortable speaking about pandemic-related stressors with their therapists because they know that their therapists are stressed, too.
Remember that your healing process is your own and utilizing resources like teletherapy sessions is instrumental in making progress for your own mental health.
The therapist-client relationship is not and should never be focused on the therapist’s mental health and healing. Your therapist has a responsibility to be professional, regardless of what’s going on in their personal life.
An experienced school psychologist working in upstate New York — who we’ll refer to as Ms. Jones to protect the privacy of her students — explains what professionalism might look like from a therapist’s perspective during the pandemic.
“I feel that if you are affected to a degree that you cannot speak with a client about specific topics, it would be prudent (and best practice) to refer them to a colleague or someone who may be able to do so,” Jones tells Healthline.
Jones believes that all therapists are “obligated to that standard of care both ethically and professionally.”
This doesn’t mean that your therapists aren’t experiencing struggles like you, of course. Your therapists might also feel symptoms of mental health strain and similarly have to find treatment that works for them.
“I have experienced periods of anxiety, depression, and great despair due to the pandemic and current political climate,” Smith says.
Jones shares similar concerns: “I have noticed changes in my sleep, eating habits, and general mood/affect. It seems to change regularly — one day, I will feel motivated and energized, while the next I will feel mentally and physically exhausted.”
“I feel like my mental health status throughout this pandemic is almost a microcosm of what it used to look like, or potentially would look like, if it weren’t managed through medication and therapy,” Jones adds.
But if you’re feeling nervous or “bad” about discussing your concerns with your therapists, remember that your job is to be the patient and to heal. Your therapist’s job is to help you in that journey.
“It is never the job for the patient to care for the therapist,” Smith emphasizes. “It’s our job and professional responsibility to care for ourselves so that we are able to be present for our clients.”
And if you’re not sure how to navigate conversations about COVID-19 in your counseling sessions, Jones says, “I would encourage my students (or any client) to disclose, to their comfort, any topics with which they are struggling.”
Opening this communication is the first step toward your individual process of healing.
In short, many of them are practicing the very advice that they’ll give to you.
“I take the advice that I offer to clients… limiting news consumption, maintaining a healthy diet, daily exercise, attending to a regular sleep schedule, and creatively connecting with friends/family,” Smith says.
When we asked what she does professionally to avoid pandemic-related burnout, Smith advised, “Taking breaks between sessions and scheduling time off acts as a preventive [measure] to the pandemic becoming all consuming.”
“Although clients may be discussing the same stressor (i.e., the pandemic), working with them individually to create/challenge their narratives around managing/surviving the pandemic offers unique perspectives on hope and healing, which helps flip the script on the pandemic,” she says.
And Smith’s advice to other therapists?
“I would encourage therapists to remember their own self-care regimen. Use your colleagues and there’s an abundance of online support out there — we’re in this together! We’ll get through this!”
Since my university went on lockdown due to the COVID-19 outbreak, I’ve been fortunate enough to virtually speak with my counselor each week.
Our teletherapy sessions are different than the in-person appointments in a lot of ways. For one, I’m usually in pajama pants with a blanket, or cat, or both draped across my lap. But the most noticeable difference is the way that these teletherapy sessions begin.
Each week, my counselor checks in with me — a simple “How are you doing?”
Before, my answers were usually something like, “stressed about school,” “overwhelmed with work,” or “having a bad pain week.”
Now, this question is a lot harder to answer.
I’m a disabled writer in the last semester of my MFA program, a month away from moving back home to upstate New York, and a few more months away from (maybe, hopefully) having a wedding that my fiancé and I have been planning for two years.
I haven’t left my studio apartment in weeks. I can’t go outside because my neighbors don’t wear masks, and they unapologetically cough into the air.
I wonder a lot about my month-long respiratory illness in January, right before the United States was hit with confirmed cases, and how many doctors told me that they couldn’t help. That it was some virus they didn’t understand. I’m immunocompromised, and I’m still recovering.
So how am I doing?
The truth is that I’m terrified. I’m incredibly anxious. I’m depressed. When I tell my counselor this, she nods, and I know that she feels the same way.
The strange thing about taking care of our mental health during a global pandemic is that so many of our experiences are suddenly shared.
“I have found myself ‘joining’ with clients more often due to the parallel process we are all going through,” Smith says.
We’re on a parallel process toward healing. Mental health professionals, essential workers, students — all of us are trying to cope with the “uncertainty of what the ‘new normal’ will look like,” Jones says.
My counselor and I settle on the word “okay” a lot. I’m okay. We’re okay. Everything will be okay.
We trade a look through screens, a quiet understanding. A sigh.
But nothing about this is really okay, and this is why it’s important for me (and for you, too) to continue with my mental healthcare even though I know that everyone else around me is having the same fears.
We all need resources like therapy, and self-care, and support more than ever in times like these. All any of us can do is manage. All any of us can do is survive.
Our therapists and mental health professionals are hard at work — this is what they’ve trained for, just as other frontline workers have.
So yes, you might recognize your therapist’s exhaustion. You might trade a look, an understanding. You might see that you’re both grieving and surviving in similar ways.
But believe in your therapist and listen closely as they tell you: It’s okay to not be okay and I’m here to help you through it.
Aryanna Falkner is a disabled writer from Buffalo, New York. She’s an MFA candidate in fiction at Bowling Green State University in Ohio, where she lives with her fiancé and their fluffy black cat. Her writing has appeared or is forthcoming in Blanket Sea and Tule Review. Find her and pictures of her cat on Twitter.