The coronavirus pandemic has steeply curtailed social gatherings, travel plans and in-person events for most of 2020. And that has raised something of a perplexing scenario for counselors and other mental health professionals: When almost everyone is isolating themselves physically to some extent — and will be for the foreseeable future — how do you identify that a client might be isolating in the “classic” sense, which is typically viewed as a red flag that someone might be struggling with their mental health?
“As I’ve gone through the last six months, my view on what isolation looks like has definitely changed,” says Sean Nixon, a licensed clinical professional counselor outside of Boise, Idaho, who works with children and families. “I used to think of isolating as a person who is off by themselves, not engaged or interacting with anyone. But now, [for] a lot of people who I’ve worked with in my practice, there’s this forced, constant isolating. Even now that they can leave the house, to walk up and give someone a hug, as you might have done six months ago, is not the norm.”
Nixon, like many clinicians, has needed to shift his thinking about what isolation looks like in clients during the COVID-19 pandemic, and respond differently as well. When screening for isolation and depression, one of the primary indicators counselors look for is a loss of interest or lack of participation in activities that a person once enjoyed. But throughout the pandemic, many clients haven’t felt safe playing group sports or participating in activities or hobbies that typically involve others. Plus, many of these activities haven’t been available anyway because of widespread cancellations and closures.
“Now, when asking those screener questions, I have to consider the person’s situation. … We have to screen more — are we seeing an increase in depression, an increase in stress because of the pandemic, or are we dealing with both here?” says Nixon, a member of the American Counseling Association who works as a pediatric mental health therapist in an outpatient setting for a medical system.
Nixon says he has also broadened his scope of thinking about isolation to look for it both in individuals and entire family units. Not only are families feeling isolated from friends and outside activities that they used to enjoy, but they are sometimes isolating themselves from each other within the household during this stressful time, he explains. This can range from physical withdrawal, such as shutting themselves in their bedrooms, to spending too much time using digital devices as an avoidance mechanism.
Signs of isolation in families with children often become apparent when youngsters express a constant desire to play with or do one-on-one activities with a caregiver, he says. At the same time, many parents are expressing that they feel overwhelmed or that they feel guilty about needing to spend time sequestered away from their children as they work from home.
“From parents, I’m hearing [in sessions] how they just need a break and are feeling like their children always want their attention. They’re trying to find balance while they still have work commitments and are trying to explain to younger children that ‘Mom and Dad aren’t just home; we’re home and we have work to do.’ It’s definitely a strain and struggle on parents,” says Nixon, who is also a licensed marriage and family counselor.
“A lot of times, the previous concept of isolation was as an individual problem,” he continues. “But [as the pandemic worsened] I was working with family units who were limited on where they could go, and I started to see stress and overwhelming emotions that came with being around each other 24 hours a day, seven days a week. As that continued to build, for some families, it helped them grow closer together. For others, it was increasing their dysfunction and tearing them apart faster.”
What to listen for
Ryan Holliman is a licensed professional counselor and supervisor (LPC-S) and a counselor educator who counsels adult clients one day per week at a free medical clinic in Dallas. Forging a strong bond with clients and getting to know what is and isn’t normal behavior for them is always important for clinicians, but that’s even more the case now, he says.
Many of Holliman’s clients have personality disorders and struggle with maintaining long-term relationships. During the COVID-19 pandemic, Holliman has found he needs to assess clients more regularly and rigorously for isolation, including asking focused questions about their relationships and the resources they rely on when experiencing stress.
“Isolation is now a lot more nuanced,” says Holliman, an ACA member and an assistant professor at Tarleton State University. “You have to listen for different things [such as] if they are being proactive about developing social networks and accessing those networks, or are they letting COVID-19 dictate the terms of their social life? … Most relationships right now are facing a lot of stress [because] we’re placing all the emotional weight on a few places.”
Holliman has increased his check-ins with clients about their relationships with friends and family, asking them to rate these relationships on a scale. He asks, “How happy are you with the relationship, and how happy do you think the other person is with the relationship?” The aim of this exercise is to ensure that clients are continuing to grow, not stall, in their relationships during this trying time, he explains.
“With COVID-19, it’s easy [for clients] to say ‘good enough is good enough’ and lapse into complacency. But I tell clients, ‘That’s not what I want for you.’ It would be easy to say, ‘It’s a crisis, it’s a pandemic, and this is as good as it’s going to get.’ But as counselors, we are called to be dealers in hope,” he emphasizes. “Help [clients] move toward hope and [see] that there can be more.”
Among the college student population, many individuals are exhibiting typical signs such as having trouble sleeping or feeling overwhelmed that suggest they are struggling and feeling isolated — but exponentially so, says Elizabeth Bambacus, a student engagement and summer studies administrator at Virginia Commonwealth University (VCU). She runs a peer mentoring program for first-generation college students, a population that is already susceptible to feeling out of place and experiencing self-doubt. Her program pairs freshmen first-generation students with upperclassmen first-generation students for support, guidance and friendship.
Bambacus says many of her students have talked about feeling like their academic programs are much harder this fall. One student recently remarked that she wouldn’t be upset if she threw her laptop across the room and it broke. In another conversation, a male student told Bambacus that he hadn’t been outdoors in four days.
“We [would] generally have students who pop in [to our office] and say hi and random drop-ins wanting to chat about everything from ‘I’m worried about an assignment’ to ‘I just had a big argument with my dad, and it’s impacting my ability to focus.’ But there isn’t much opportunity for that now,” say Bambacus, who has a doctorate in counselor education and supervision. “It’s just not the same because everyone is avoiding everyone.”
VCU’s campus in Richmond is open, but a majority of the school’s classes are being held online. While some students are staying on campus, many have chosen to live at home or by themselves in apartments off campus, Bambacus says. Most of the ways that students would typically be personally interacting with others, from staying after class to ask a professor a question to getting involved in student clubs and group events, are off the table this fall.
Another big indicator of isolation among students is avoidance behaviors, such as not engaging with peer mentors and neglecting assignments or otherwise letting their academics slide. Bambacus observes that many students, including those who have a prior history of being responsive, aren’t responding to her emails this semester. “College students in general aren’t great at this,” she says, “but I have noticed an uptick.”
Many students this year are also experiencing a resurgence of anxiety and depression that were previously under control, Bambacus adds. Students with those diagnoses are always at risk for isolating behaviors, but this year, that is acutely so. As they begin to feel disconnected, their anxiety spikes and they get behind in their classwork, leading to a vicious cycle, she notes.
“I see students get overwhelmed, get behind in classes, and that’s triggering too — that feeling of doom. ‘Oh no. It’s happening again.’ With all of the anxiety and depressive thoughts, how can anyone do their homework or study for a test? That requires so much mental energy to do that, and the shame in not being able to do that — beating yourself up for not being able to focus for more than 30 seconds at a time — it’s just a cycle.”
Adapt as needed
In addition to checking in more frequently with clients and listening for the different (and potentially new) ways that isolation is affecting them, Holliman is focusing on self-talk. These past few months have left many clients prone to a downward spiral of self-critical thinking, he says.
Many of his clients talk about being “stuck in their own thoughts,” he notes. “When you’re at home all the time, that’s a real struggle to fight that.”
That is all the more acute for clients dealing with reduced income or job loss during the recent economic shifts caused by COVID-19, he adds. Feeling trapped financially can lead to increased feelings of isolation, he says, particularly when added to the social isolation and self-doubt that have gone hand in hand with the pandemic.
“Clients may just need to hear, ‘This is not a normal situation, and you’re handling it,’” Holliman says. “Drawing from compassion-focused therapy, I ask [clients], ‘How are you talking to yourself? What’s the tone of voice you use? Do you give yourself credit for managing your mental health during all of this?’ We all need to give ourselves credit.”
Normalization is an important therapeutic tool right now, says Nellie Scanlon, an ACA member and LPC in the counseling center at Slippery Rock University (SRU) in Pennsylvania. Scanlon, a temporary faculty member at SRU, started a support group this fall for students to talk about the loss, isolation and other feelings they have experienced during the pandemic. The group meets weekly via Zoom.
Like Bambacus, Scanlon says she is seeing an uptick in symptoms of depression and anxiety among the college student population she sees. “Many clients are using the phrase ‘It’s fine’ when they really mean they are not fine. I have been encouraging clients to allow themselves to feel what they are feeling and process those feelings in session. So often, we are expected to be OK and move on without acknowledging that our feelings of loss and loneliness are normal responses in times of crisis such as the current pandemic,” says Scanlon, who successfully defended her dissertation and earned her doctorate in counselor education at Duquesne University earlier this fall.
“I also remind clients that they are more resilient than they realize,” she says. “I ask clients to remember a time in the past when they were successful at bouncing back and talk about it. It seems to be personally impactful for them to recall when they have been resilient in the past, and that increases their confidence level to adjust to current life circumstances.”
Of course, there are also some tried-and-true interventions for addressing isolation and loneliness that counselors are no longer finding helpful or appropriate to use during the pandemic. The professionals interviewed for this article agree that counselors should put exposure therapy and similar techniques on the shelf for now. They say it simply isn’t appropriate to encourage clients struggling with depression, social anxiety, obsessive-compulsive disorder or other diagnoses to interact with others in person at this time as a way to stave off isolation.
Bambacus notes that many of the go-to suggestions she would typically give to college students to boost their mental wellness, such as calling a friend to get together, going to a campus event or party, or simply getting out of the house to sit at a coffee shop for an hour, are not advisable at this time. She has been forced to consider other ways that she might help students make connections and avoid isolation. “This is definitely bringing out the creativity in us all right now — along with frustration,” Bambacus says with a chuckle.
“I think this is a real struggle given the current social restrictions in place due to the COVID-19 pandemic,” agrees Scanlon, the chair-elect of ACA’s North Atlantic Region and immediate past president of the Pennsylvania Counseling Association. “I have been encouraging clients to connect with others in a meaningful manner that is effective for them. … Needless to say, there still appears to be an overwhelming loss of personal connection with others because we are limited due to the pandemic in the how, what, when and where of connecting with others.”
Psychoeducation can be a helpful tool in situations in which clients assume that they can’t be social during the pandemic or even push back against that line of thinking, Holliman says. By making themselves aware of out-of-the-box options, counselors can be ready to offer suggestions. For example, Holliman notes that his local library offers book clubs that meet over Zoom.
“There are a lot of unique ways for us to connect with one another,” Holliman says. “Limited options doesn’t mean no options, and that’s something clients really need to hear. There are ways [to find connection], but you have to be creative. The counselor needs to be a creative co-creator of options.”
For many clients, especially those in recovery, the pandemic actually offers more options for attending 12-step meetings and support groups because so many of them are meeting online now, he says.
Holliman found psychoeducation to be a powerful tool recently when working with a woman with bipolar disorder who was estranged from her family and struggling with isolation. She ended up in the hospital due to dosage issues that led to toxicity from one of her medications. In a session following her hospitalization, the client confided in Holliman: “Other than you, those doctors in the hospital were the first people I’ve talked to in a long time.”
Holliman said he knew even prior to this session that relationships were a challenge for the client, but her hospitalization served as a tipping point and an indicator of how acute her isolation had become during the pandemic. During the session, Holliman spent a good deal of time normalizing the client’s experience with bipolar disorder, emphasizing that supports were available and connecting her with resources, including online support groups for individuals with bipolar disorder. Holliman told the client, “You may feel alone, but you don’t have to be alone.”
“She had no idea there were others like her out there,” Holliman says. “She made the comment, ‘I thought we all just ended up in asylums.’ She didn’t realize [there were supports]. She had just assumed, ‘This is how life goes.’”
Clients with bipolar disorder are at higher risk for isolation because of the rapid mood fluctuations of their disorder and the impact that can have on their close relationships, often causing these clients to become estranged from friends and family members, Holliman notes.
This client has engineered a significant turnaround since her hospitalization, according to Holliman, including rekindling her relationship with her parents. “Things aren’t perfect [in this client’s life], but they are better,” he says.
Bambacus also emphasizes the need for creativity to help clients find ways to avoid isolation during the pandemic. This fall, she started offering online office hours and helped organize a series of faculty talks (also held online) for her first-generation students on nonacademic topics such as impostor syndrome.
At the same time, she is encouraging her upperclassmen mentors to organize events for students in the mentoring program, with a focus on staying connected. If the event is in person, students must hold it outside and limit it to a small number of attendees. Other students are planning virtual events, such as game nights and a live “cooking show” in which students demonstrate how to make their favorite recipes over video chat. Still others are doing low-risk volunteer work, such as writing letters to older adults or doing a trash pickup outdoors.
Bambacus has also been checking in with students more frequently. For those exhibiting withdrawal or avoidance behaviors, she sometimes includes a gentle reminder that she needs to hear back from them.
“I’m watching everyone a little more carefully,” she says. “Especially students who put on a brave face, they often appreciate check-ins. … I am watching students who are more susceptible to slowing down during the semester and struggling and those who have taken breaks [withdrawn from enrollment] previously because of their mental health. Often, the first sign they are struggling is unresponsiveness. I get creative with my emails and give them a deadline, such as ‘I need to know by Friday.’ Once they respond, then I say, ‘Hey, you’re there. Let’s talk!’”
This fall, she has been emphasizing self-care and wellness among her students, including the importance of physical activity, eating and sleeping well, getting outside and turning off the news. She is also pushing the message that it is OK to ask for help when you are struggling. Even something as simple as encouraging students to call their friends and family members instead of texting, so that they actually hear one another’s voices, can foster stronger connection, she says.
“There’s so much healing in knowing that you’re not alone in your feelings of isolation, so create opportunities for clients to see that other people are in the same boat,” Bambacus says. “Maybe that means running more groups and offering those types of services. It can be held outside or virtually. [It’s] just having that space where clients can see that this is not just happening to them and that other people are surviving ‘in spite of’ and offering them some hope and options. Isolation is such a devious thing because it makes you think that you are the only one — you’re not just alone; you’re the only one who’s alone — and that’s just not true.”
Families and isolation: A group effort
For families struggling with isolation, Nixon is focusing on ways they can be intentional about prioritizing connection, both within and outside the family unit. With all the stressors families are facing during the pandemic, it is easy to lapse into bad habits, he notes. “When you get resolved to ‘this is how life is going to be,’ you kind of go through the motions,” says Nixon, a board member of the Association for Child and Adolescent Counseling, a division of ACA.
Step one of being intentional often involves creating and maintaining a daily schedule in the household, Nixon advises. He suggests setting times for family members to focus on work or school and times to focus on connecting as a family, including designated times to put away all electronic devices.
Family time should include activities that prompt family members to interact and engage with one another to minimize isolation and boost mental health, Nixon says. This could include everything from getting outside and playing in the yard to coloring or drawing together, playing board games, having an indoor dance party or engaging in a scavenger hunt. (For more ideas, see the article “Supporting families with engagement strategies during COVID-19.”)
The lack of in-person celebrations during the pandemic, especially surrounding birthdays, has been hard for young clients and families. Nixon has helped clients find new ways to connect with family and friends to mark special occasions, including blowing their celebratory candles out during video chats and organizing walk-by or drive-by “parades” of well-wishers.
Similarly, many of Nixon’s adolescent clients are missing the in-person interactions they would normally have with friends and peers through school and extracurricular activities. Here, intentionality also helps fill the void. Nixon asks adolescent clients to identify what they enjoyed most before the pandemic. The answers usually involve hanging out with friends, watching movies or playing video games together. One of the ways his clients have adapted is by setting a specific time to watch a movie simultaneously with friends (each in their own home) and then texting or video chatting with one another as they watch.
Nixon also encourages family clients to identify substitutes for things they enjoyed doing together before the pandemic. He uses a whiteboard in sessions to visualize clients’ ideas and prompt dialogue.
“I get their perspective and talk about what their preference and focus was before the pandemic. Was it being together at mealtimes? Then be intentional about that now. Or if sports were really important, organized sports may not be an option, but they can play as a family or set time aside to sit down and review tapes from past games and analyze them,” says Nixon, a past president of the Idaho Counseling Association. “Identify what was important to [clients] before, and help them realize that it’s still important and how to find a new context for it.”
Counselors can guide clients to find new rituals by identifying the core reason they enjoyed certain activities before the pandemic. Ask “why do families do what they do, and what meaning do they give to it? Then try and find something else that will give them the same meaning in a different context,” Nixon advises.
For one family on Nixon’s caseload, family meals were very important, and they found connection by going out to eat in restaurants together. This became more challenging when many restaurants closed their dining rooms throughout the spring and summer.
Nixon helped the family reframe this ritual and brainstorm ways they could re-create the aspects of eating out that they most enjoyed. After breaking it down, the family identified the core features they enjoyed as trying new restaurants and experiencing new cuisines together. The family had a self-imposed rule of never eating at the same restaurant twice in one month or having the same type of cuisine twice in one week, so they were always looking for new places to try, Nixon says.
“For them, what was meaningful was … the adventure of trying something new and ordering with the intention of sharing it with someone at the table,” he says. “The intention was to be adventurous, to try something new and to share that together.”
Once they came to this realization, Nixon suggested the family experience new foods together by learning to cook them at home. Their initial reply? “We don’t cook,” Nixon recalls.
Undeterred, Nixon suggested the family search the internet for ideas and how-to videos. The family started small, making an appetizer, and found it was easier than they had assumed it would be. From there, the activity blossomed into setting aside one night per week to replicate dishes together that they had previously enjoyed at restaurants.
“They didn’t want to mess up and fail, and they didn’t want to waste time and money [on specialty ingredients]. But they found that nothing was ever a failure, just as with going out to a restaurant that they didn’t like. It was the trying that they enjoyed,” Nixon says.
Now, even with restaurants reopening, this family continues with its at-home cooking adventures. They set aside the money they save by eating at home to splurge on an occasional restaurant meal that they previously would have considered a treat.
“The opportunity that this family has taken to take a step outside of their comfort zone has brought them closer together,” Nixon says. “They have found that family members have skills that they did not completely see before, and they have found that small changes have always impacted the family. In the past, the small changes were seen negatively, [but] now they see the opportunity and positivity that can come within the family.”
Nixon says he has been contemplating the long-term effects the COVID-19 pandemic might have on mental health, especially with the increased physical and social isolation that will return for many people during the winter months. As cases of COVID-19 continue to rise in the U.S., combined with the arrival of the traditional flu season, it is possible that states or localities may reimpose some of the stringent lockdown measures, such as school and business closures, that happened back in the spring.
It is possible that counselors might witness an uptick not only of isolating behaviors but also feelings of hopelessness and suicidal ideation among clients, Nixon says. With that in mind, he is increasing his screenings of clients for safety, harm and abuse, plus making sure that he shares resources such as crisis hotline numbers.
“I have been thinking about that a lot lately: how to help families and clients with the potential for an extended stay at home and the long-term aspect with winter coming on,” Nixon says. “How can families be intentional [to avoid isolation]? What’s important to [a client’s] family, and how do you continue to keep that ember burning?”
Contact the counselors interviewed for this article:
Bethany Bray is a senior writer and social media coordinator for Counseling Today. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Opinions expressed and statements made in articles appearing on CT Online should not be assumed to represent the opinions of the editors or policies of the American Counseling Association.