Adapting Care for Difficult Times
In March, when the University of Utah made the decision to rapidly shift to all-online instruction and vacate the campus in response to COVID-19, the University Counseling Center (UCC) quickly made several changes in order to continue serving students. With lightning speed, they have:
- Transitioned entirely to telehealth sessions, offering crisis services over the phone;
- Implemented phone triage appointments, in place of formal intake sessions, to offer support to students and discuss care options;
- Developed “Coping with Chaos”—an online workshop open to students, faculty, and staff—in order to provide additional support and coping skills for the campus community;
- Adapted “Feel Better Now,” a psychoeducational and mindfulness skills building workshop, to an online format; and
- Created a way for current clients of the UCC to access medication management services through telehealth.
College of Social Work alums Josh Newbury, assistant clinical director of the UCC, and Gretchen Anstadt, a UCC staff clinical social worker, explained that throughout this transition, a critical guiding principle has been to remain as accessible as possible to students. We caught up with them (online, of course) to find out more about how their work and their lives are being impact by COVID-19.
Community Matters: What lessons have you learned in this process? About yourself? About your clients? About the nature of your work?
Josh Newbury: Through this process, I have been reminded that we social workers are uniquely positioned to see many of the pieces of a social problem. While many of us are understandably focused on the pandemic, some of our students are struggling to pay rent, access food, or find affirming spaces. It has been more difficult than I can articulate to see and hear about the increase in xenophobia, racism, and domestic violence. Also, this moment is in many ways a lesson in grief and responding to loss—the loss of our normal, of security, of health—with gentleness, compassion, and openness. That can be a tall order, and I do believe social workers are quite good at it.
Gretchen Anstadt: Along with that, I have been reminded of how resilient humans are. People are being confronted with wanting better and to feel and do better, and they are making an effort to get to that place.
JN: Yes, college-aged folks are sometimes seen as or labeled as indifferent or self-centered, and I have seen our students show a great concern for our whole community. There has been a commitment to collective caretaking, volunteering, physical distancing, and recognizing the seriousness of this pandemic, all while continuing to juggle very real individual and other social problems.
GA: Professionally, I think this has been a great time to reflect on and engage with different communities in new and creative ways. It has reminded me that this field is constantly changing and developing, and as a professional, it is important that I continue to do that as well.
JN: As social workers, there is an opportunity with unanticipated situations, like this pandemic, to choose how we want to respond and decide who we individually want to be through change, pain, and suffering. When things like this happen, we get to be more involved in the process and confront the challenges with these incredible professional values and skills. We, as much as we can, prepare for these situations, but it's only when we are in them that we get to decide exactly what kind of person and social worker we want to be.
CM: What advice do you have for those who are struggling right now?
JN: I want to offer a gentle reminder that feelings are never the problem. The feelings and emotions coming up now—whether it be anxiety, grief, anger, or any other emotion—are all important emotions that provide information for us to use. Be gentle with yourself, incorporate self-compassion, do what is personally healthy to cope with all of these changes and losses. This could be a good opportunity to get to know ourselves better and dig into the things we might typically want to avoid. Reach out and stay connected to others, find new ways or continue implementing ways to soothe and comfort yourself and others, and take care of yourself as much as possible. It might also be helpful to be mindful that this is a collective experience and no one is alone in it, even if it feels that way sometimes.
GA: Just to add on to that, I think continuing to utilize outlets that help maintain a positive mindset and confront adversity in the past can be helpful. Often times this can be socializing with others, exercising, eating healthfully, journaling, or engaging in hobbies. One aspect of self-care that I believe is really powerful is knowing when to seek additional support.
CM: How has your education helped you navigate all the recent changes?
JN: My education taught me that painful moments like the one we're in right now are when we really get to demonstrate our commitment to the values of social work. While in school, I had a professor demonstrate this by showing up for our class even after experiencing a significant loss. What I appreciated is that he had all of his understandable emotions with him, and (not "but") he still found a way to act on his values and the values of our profession.
GA: Similarly, while I was an intern, I saw the campus community respond to a highly emotional and difficult situation, and learned that as humans we are highly adaptable and resilient. A large part of my education helped me learn, both for myself and in working with clients, the importance of finding balance between feeling emotions and using them as a tool to help guide action and reaction, while being flexible with expectations. This feels especially relevant related to the current pandemic and the changes and emotions being experienced by many.
CM: Any final thoughts?
JN: I want to reiterate that many people are being impacted by this pandemic and college students are no exception. Some students are impacted financially, having no or little access to food or housing; many international students are unable to travel home right now. Additionally, racism and xenophobia are often exacerbated during times of crisis and in response to fear. Many queer-identified students cannot go home or do not feel safe or comfortable in their homes. Our students rely a lot on having dedicated spaces on campus where they can feel secure; spaces to which access may be limited right now. I think right now we are all being challenged to build solidarity and look for the ways we can support one another.
GA: I think times like this show our responsibility and desire to serve the students at the U and to address the individual and communal concerns we are all faced with.