This story has been updated to accurately reflect statements made by Jason Vasquez.
Zoom fatigue—it’s the idea that the sudden shift to virtual conferences has a more taxing toll on one’s mental health than in-person meetings. Home offices and bedrooms have been converted to makeshift workspaces, blurring the boundaries between work and personal life. As California moves into its ninth week in quarantine, the shock of the transitional period is weaning off for some. However, PCC’s Personal Counseling department is prepared for the emotional effects of the quarantine that remain amongst its student body.
The Personal Counseling department has been offering triage teletherapy appointments for students who need emotional support and ideas on how to cope during this time. With stay-at-home environments, their stressors have changed and new, unfamiliar challenges have arisen for students to navigate.
“Learning to live with not knowing is a learnable skill, but many people don’t know that,” said Personal Counseling psychologist Alison Johnson. “Trying to impart that sense of ‘I can be calm while I don’t know something’ is what I can teach people. First of all, there is hope, and second of all, here are the tools to be able to do that.”
It was hard for the staff to have any expectations going into their new virtual services with such unprecedented circumstances.
“In our profession, we deal with a gray area,” said Personal Counseling psychologist Marcos Briano. “The gray area is what we’re always in right now, in this new environment and working with our clients. Being adaptable and flexible has been key.”
The timeline of the pandemic can be broken down into several phases. Based on what Johnson has seen and researched, these stages follow a typical pattern in disaster response.
The first phase is devoted to logistics and people increasing their coping skills, where they do what’s absolutely necessary to move forward. Johnson believes that we are currently in the second phase, where emotional resources are starting to become exhausted.
“That’s where we come into our own,” said Johnson. “Now we’re extending our information to the faculty, the staff and our students. If we provided this at the very onset, it would have been set aside and then we’d have to represent it anyway. We’re phasing it in, I think, at just the right point.”
Some necessary adjustments affect the way Personal Counseling normally functions, but the goal of providing a safe and open space for students remains the same.
Normally face-to-face appointments are an hour long. Those times have now been shortened to about 20 or 30 minutes. However, depending on the nature of the student’s concerns, the staff will go over the scheduled time frame to maximize the opportunity to serve more students.
In doing so, the staff are able to help students prioritize whatever concerns are most relevant to work on in that moment. After each session, students get a follow-up email with general information and resources they can consult.
Among these suggestions are mobile apps, book resources, self-care tips or any home activities that they can engage in. The staff may also collaboratively brainstorm whom the student may reach out to in his or her social support system.
What may have been a perfect activity to encourage students to do several months ago may no longer work with the stay-at-home order in effect. With everyone quarantined and many businesses shut down, one’s personal freedom is limited. The staff is no longer able to suggest going out or socializing with other people, which are activities that are commonly recommended.
“I’ve also noticed that when there are relationship issues, those might be exacerbated because [students are] in the home with those people, conflicts and tensions,” said Personal Counseling psychologist Jennifer McCart. “The communication issues are all escalated because they are with them 24/7. Nobody’s used to this.”
Additionally, the staff has been forced to maneuver around the lack of face-to-face contact with the teletherapy appointments. They are only able to speak with students over the phone, as they will not have the resources for video conferencing sessions until they are allowed back on campus.
“You can see body language,” said McCart. “You can see emotion. You can see facial expressions. People say a lot without words. So … what that means for us is maybe approaching it a little bit differently. Maybe [we need to] clarify or ask more questions.”
The usual number of students using personal counseling services have ebbed and flowed since the outbreak, but for the staff, this is understandable.
“People are more worried about whether they’re going to have food or self-grooming supplies … ,” said Jason Vasquez, the only full-time, licensed psychologist on the Personal Counseling staff. “When a traumatic situation happens, people invariably go to shock first. They’re in a state of shock and trying to organize themselves. Once we get through that period and you develop that new normal of what is life going to look like now, then you might be open to different possibilities of reaching out for help. Sometimes, it’s just quite literally safety concerns first, and then transitioning to more higher level concerns.”
Nevertheless, the department has been proactive in its outreach. The staff has communicated directly with students, contacted campus partners and attended division and staff meetings to discuss how to best provide their services. Recently, a virtual self-care package was sent to students. COVID-19 and mental health updates are also provided on the department’s website.
The staff wants students to understand that despite being experts in mental health, they still suffer the same emotional impacts as everyone else.
“As people who work with people, as people who provide a service, as people who give a part of themselves to other people, we also have to take care of ourselves,” said McCart. “That’s going to look different for everybody. If we need time alone or we need time with other people, or time to meditate and sing and dance and be outside, we know what those things are.”
Every week, the department has staff meetings and clinical supervision where everyone checks in with each other. This allows them to have an opportunity to debrief, whether it is about clinical work, outreach or other professional issues.
Above all, it is important to know that any emotions such as confusion, anger or grief are completely understandable. In situations such as these, they may even be unavoidable.
“I want students to know that we’re not only here for them and want to support them, [but] we want to be a part of their success here at PCC,” said Vasquez. “Whether that’s providing them with emotional support or just being there for them, we’re hopeful that together we’re all going to get through this.”