Crisis-Era Psychosocial Counselling at the mdw

The demand for psychosocial counselling among mdw students rose quite steeply over the past one-and-a-half years, necessitating that offerings be expanded as fast as possible as the COVID crisis unfolded. Therapists Marion Herbert, Evelyn Jahn, and Alexander Parte provide insights into their work, point out the themes that dominated the COVID crisis, and reveal what can help us (better) deal with such situations.

“Particularly among people who work in the arts and culture, the COVID pandemic often entailed the loss of all professional work in one fell swoop. This not only pitted students against huge financial challenges but also made clear the specific conditions under which artistic work unfolds—and how an event like a pandemic, with its attendant consequences, can call the entire basis of one’s existence into question practically overnight,” says Alexander Parte to describe the situation in which many people suddenly found themselves. “The resulting fears and worries as well as people’s pessimistic views of their own professional futures have played a major role in the increase in demand for psychosocial counselling at the mdw. And the isolation experienced by many students during the lockdowns—especially by foreign students without any family in Vienna—represented yet another major stressor. Loneliness due to the severe restrictions on social contact not only fed anxiety, but also produced a clear rise in the number of depressive episodes,” explains the therapist. At the beginning of the pandemic, it was above all people’s worries and anxieties with regard to their own health and safety that were in focus; routines and rules for safe interactions had yet to be found. “But eventually, in the wake of the various lockdowns, the closure of universities, and shift of teaching to the digital realm, it was the loss of structure that featured most prominently. It was hugely challenging for students to structure their days on their own and motivate themselves, since much of their lives’ external components—and hence structural anchoring—had disappeared. Following a one-and a-half-year pandemic and the expected subsequent normalisation, these difficulties are now receding. And the spotlight has now shifted to people‘s worries about their own professional futures. Even though cultural activities are gradually ramping back up, many students doubt whether a situation like before the pandemic can or will ever exist again. So in this respect, COVID seems to have resulted in lasting insecurity,” ascertains Parte regarding the present moment.

From left to right: Alexander Parte, Marion Herbert, Evelyn Jahn © private, Bernhard Nicolics-Jahn

The psychological resources relevant to getting through such situations in a crisis-proof manner differ from person to person. “One person may have already experienced quite a bit in their life and will hence know what’s important for them during a crisis and how it feels to be resilient, while another person will need to face these challenges for the first time. But every individual has resources and abilities relevant to dealing with crises. And beyond these, secure-feeling busyness—like in one’s studies, work, or a specific project—as content that provides structure, plus an at least moderately stable financial and social situation as well as physical health, are extremely important. Crises tend to appear quite suddenly, and they at first throw everything out of whack,” says Evelyn Jahn in description of the very individual ways in which people cope with such situations. She also considers it quite important to get clear on the magnitude and significance of a given crisis in one’s own life. “What areas of my life are affected by it? Might there be entirely unaffected areas? And what’s been lost? What resources remain intact, and what needs to have happened so that I can experience and categorise the crisis as something I’ve dealt with successfully? Particularly important are so-called stabilising factors: regular mealtimes and a minimum of six hours’ sleep, maintaining as much daily structure as possible, and communication with others. One should make sure to have little points of orientation each and every day,” advises the therapist. What’s more, it’s also important just whom one has at one’s side—for friends, colleagues, and family members can all provide support, here. “One also needs to ask: How am I holding up psychologically? Do I have any symptoms? Do I need professional help?” says Jahn. People often get the feeling that their problems and worries aren’t important enough, and in such situations, they tend to compare themselves with others quite a bit. “I tell such individuals that every human being has a right to their feelings and their complaints, regardless of whether there may also be people who—viewed objectively—have bigger problems and less resources. Feelings of guilt and a bad conscience toward others absolutely do make the crisis worse, for which reason one needs to employ very clear words to nip these things in the bud as early as possible in the conversation.”

The extent to which COVID has been and continues to be a stress factor differs just as much as the ways in which people deal with it, and it’s of course also influenced by other factors such as one’s social situation. “While some people speak of ‘slowing down’, others have been—and still are—forced to grapple with multiple burdens and massive existential threats and fears as well as health difficulties. And those who were already in underprivileged situations prior to the crisis will have to deal with still more psychosocial burdens,” explains Marion Herbert. And the crisis’s aftereffects, she thinks, will look quite similar. “Some people experience these only once the most severe stress has passed and ‘survival mode’ can be switched off; anxieties, exhaustion, depression-like experiences, and a shaken sense of security are all things that can arise with a certain delay. And those who suffer from “long COVID” symptoms will likewise be challenged for quite a while yet, with some probably needing lots of patience, endurance, time, and a supportive environment in order to recover and/or regain their footing and once again feel safe and healthy.” There is, of course, no blanket solution for how one might deal with such crises in the future. “But ideas about what can provide support in crisis situations do exist: quite a few people will likely already be helped by simply surrounding themselves with supportive people who do them good and with whom they can share private things in order to not remain alone with what troubles them. Sometimes, it feels good to talk with people who are close to you—but it can sometimes also help to get in contact with professionals in order to get an ‘outside perspective’ or avoid overburdening family and friends. Guilt, self-accusations, and shame are often central emotions in this regard, and while these feelings are understandable, they usually provide no relief and are more likely to make the situation and/or one’s own perception thereof worse. So if one can succeed in also developing compassion for oneself and for the powerlessness and/or overload that one currently feels, then that’s already an important step.” Like her colleague Jahn, Marion Herbert also recommends establishing a certain structure in everyday life: “Regular sleep, eating, and drinking are all crucial—and frequently aren’t paid enough attention during crisis-like experiences. After considering these things, continue by asking: Who or what currently does me good? When can I take an occasional break? When can I find moments of calm/strength/relief despite it all? Many people also benefit from a daily structure, which helps them regain a feeling of ‘normalcy’. And in my experience, it’s likewise important to keep an eye on resources as well as on burdens and their severity.”

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