The Corona virus and its effects infiltrate more and more compellingly into the life of carers, counselors, therapists,… The difficulties mental health workers have to deal with, in combination with working online and the ‘social distancing’ measures can evoke a sense of powerlessness. They feel disconnected from other mental health carers and no longer know how to go on. They are at risk of getting locked up in their own bubble. They can lose each point of reference or connection with others while laying the puzzle of the unique combination of work, home, family and friends. They risk losing each other.
How can we go on supporting and inspiring each other and hold on to a sense of solidarity? What are supportive points of entry in the care for carers?
In preparation of online narrative courses and group supervision, these were the questions that kept puzzling me. After sharing these thoughts with the groups we decided to start the day with a conversation about the obstacles and constraints that had a hold on each of us and how ‘the virus’ infiltrated in our work and lives. We started to explore if ‘infiltrated’ was the right word or what kind of verbs were more ‘experience near’ for each person. We collected all kinds of different small actions each of us took to keep it livable through questions that enhance resilience. By noticing these actions and exploring them further we made visible what people want to cherish, what or who is precious to them and which valuable connections each one wants to preserve.
While sharing all this it became clearer, despite the crisis, that we still make a difference to our clients and colleagues. We are still mattering in the life of others. Through sharing these stories ‘from inside our own bubble’ there came recognition and acknowledgement. Sharing the obstacles as well as the developed knowledge and skills turned out to be supportive. The ‘bubble feeling’ was broken and a sense of solidarity was created.
With pleasure I invite the reader to join the conversations. Maybe these questions inspire you and can be used in conversations with clients, colleagues, supervisees or trainees. Please feel free to supplement the list of questions. We tried to make a kind of guiding map of it with possible directions and questions (see attached document).
S:In which ways and in what proportion has the weirdness of this time infiltrated in your work and life?
C1: I’m jumping from one online crisis meeting towards another. Some youngsters need to be placed urgently in institutions but all child care centers have closed their doors. Parents I work with locked their daughter in her rooms for over two weeks now, because they fear that she will move in with her drug addicted boyfriend. Her grandma who lives under the same roof is dreading to become infected by the virus because of her irresponsible behavior. Each time I have to think very carefully which step to take next. A good response doesn’t seem to exist and I don’t want to abandon people.
S: How would you call all of this?
C1: The rushing and overwhelming hectic!
S: What keeps you busy in this rushing and overwhelming hectic?
C1: At night when I go to bed, can I still look myself into the mirror? Have I done enough? Did I do the right things? And regarding my clients, colleagues as well as for my partner, children, parents,…
S1: What are small actions you took to keep you going in this hectic?
C1: Each evening after work I jump on my race bike and I cycle for at least 30 km so I am tired physically.
S1: What do you want to cherish or take care of in doing this?
C1: My sleep! I want to be able to think clearly.
S1: What do you want to protect by keep on thinking clearly?
C1: To be ready for people each morning!
S: What kind of obstacles came your way during this corona crisis?
C2:Actually things are going pretty well with clients and colleagues. But our organization faces different challenges. We have to make new reflections in crisis work. We have to find a new balance in to what extend we impose ourselves or keep our distance. The different viewpoints are putting pressure on the team and each other.
S: Did you undertake small actions so the pressure didn’t overwhelm you? Or to prevent you from losing yourself in this pressure?
C2: I keep on searching for discussing together, fine tuning and mutual consent. I don’t want to stay on my little island.
S: What is important in this fine tuning? What do you want to hold on to?
C2: I want to hold on to having an overview, seeing the bigger picture, and making room for the different perspectives of colleagues.
S: Are there some bottlenecks since these times came into your work or life?
C3: Several patients in the psychiatric unit stay in their room in quarantine, for already more than a week! They experience this as punishment. We searched for ways to thank them for their efforts with regard to other patients by staying in their room. Yesterday we offered them online ‘room-aerobics’. For some patients this crisis triggers traumatic experiences from the past. Their difficult behavior evokes anger and irritation in some colleagues. A feeling of insecurity grows on the ward while I have to manage all this ‘online’ from home . The question ‘do we have to tolerate all of this?’ sounds louder every day. All of this online; to discuss, follow-up, arrange,… makes the border between work and home fade away. I’m losing track.
S: What are small actions you did to keep on track?
C3: I called the head of the psychiatric unit and shared my concerns with her. This was supportive to me. I also decided to dress myself up, by putting on make-up each morning before I go online. In the evening after closing the laptop, I go to the bathroom and put on my jogging suit so there is a small demarcation between work and home.
S: What do you try to safeguard that is important to you and the people around you?
C3: I want to maintain some structure. I want to give room to the other parts of life as well. Even more, I would like to keep away my little daughter from all these shocking events.
S: How do you try to keep this in mind?
C3: Oh, I now and then order a package on Zalando or Amazon…
S: In what degree has the corona crisis a grip on you and the important people around you?
C4: My father-in-law died of Covid-19. His funeral was last week. I could no longer combine this with work. At the same time it was impressive how people took so much effort to make this ‘goodbye’ possible. The mortician drove especially past our house with the funeral carriage. He took the coffin out of the car, so we could say goodbye from behind the window and he could put the children’s drawings, the letters and flowers on the coffin.
S: How would you name what this mortician was doing?
C4: An act of dignity!
S: How does this interfere with your work?
C4: I heard that a mom of one of the youngsters of the group had Covid-19. I felt all kinds of things in my body, I became so scared that the only thing I could think was: ‘I need a test!’. I phoned the doctor. Luckily she took this seriously. I could go to the hospital immediately. It became clear it was another infection, that could easily be treated with medication.
S: This call for ‘I need a test’, what did this came up for?
C4: Protection of myself, my family and my colleagues!
S: Did they notice this?
C4: My family for sure! This whole crisis-situation makes it impossible to hug family members, friends,… . A firm handshake, a hug would be helpful.
S: What are helpful thoughts to go on?
C4: On advice of some friends, I often say to myself: ‘It won’t last forever! We can do it double afterwards!’
S: Do you try to transform these thoughts into actions in your work?
C4: Many children in the group haven’t seen their parents for more than four weeks. They are no longer cuddled. A few days ago, I took our dog to the institution and went walking with the dog and the children one by one. They got a smile on their face when they could caress the dog.
S: Can I call this also an act of dignity?
S: In what way has this virus and these strange times entered your life?
C5: I got completely crazy with the constant flow of stimuli during working online: messages of school for the children, crisis stories from the group of youngsters, alarm cries of youngsters performing unsafe behaviour, the impossibility of limiting myself…
S: Have you done some small things to regain some grip on the constant flow of stimuli so you would not be taken away?
C5: I just look once a day at the school app instead of 10 times a day. All the e-mails, whatsapp and messenger messages etc. I put on silence. Working at home with two little children in the house is maddening so I leave the house as often as possible.
S: What makes ‘leaving the house’ possible that is important for you?
C5: It protects me against exhausting myself. Yesterday, suddenly a football was thrown from the neighbors’garden. Their 11-years old boy, Tommy, fired a thousand questions: ‘What kind of job are you doing? Why are you doing this? How do you do such a job?,…’ In the meanwhile my little children showed him how well they could cycle and roll upside down…
S: What was so special at this contact with Tommy?
C5: It brought some sense of ‘liberation’, ‘freedom’ and connection.
S: Do you have any notion what you meant to Tommy in that contact?
C5: A difficult question… but I saw a large smile on his face. He as well as my children were ‘growing’ in that moment (and maybe me too when I heard how this boy was so curious about my work.)
S: How has this whole crisis invaded your work?
C6: First I had to close the whole organization because we couldn’t meet the social distancing norms. Families, children, social workers and child carers were not welcome anymore. Soon we heard heavy stories about how things went wrong in the families. The pressure increased to do something. We decided to re-open the care farm and in order to support the families that needed it the most safely, and only one by one.
S: What does this initiative means to the families and yourself?
C6: We got appreciative responses. It brings peace, in the families as well as for the social workers and child care workers because they don’t want to forsake their clients. Also the case managers started to think ‘out of the box’ with us.
S: What helps you to enhance this ‘out of the box’ thinking?
C6: I shut myself off from all these media messages, so they can’t seduce me to doom thinking. I am responsible for the families but also for the professionals and their jobs. My motto is ‘we are going to make it!’, thiskeeps me going and helps to search for alternatives.
C7: These conditions cause a kind of split in my work and in the organization. We get drifted apart. There is a group of ‘fearful therapists’. They only want to work online at home. There is also a group that still chooses to work at the office. The addiction relapse of our clients is huge at the moment!
S: What does this split do with you and your work? Do you accept this?
C7: It makes me angry. At such a moments I become a bit rebellious.
S: Where is this protest standing for?
C7: I don’t want to be limited in my actions in such a way.
S:Have you undertaken certain actions against the limitations?
C7: Occasionally, I go walking with clients. Of course at social distance! It makes different conversations possible. Sometimes, I just need to ventilate with colleagues.
S: What prevents this ventilating?
C7: I don’t want to be sour!
C8: I have a lot of luck when I hearthe other stories. The families that I work with seem to manage quite well despite the difficult times.
S: Invite these times you to some specific actions?
C8: O yes! I always think that each disadvantage has its benefit. I try much more creative ways of conversations and write therapeutic letters on what we talked about on the phone so we can take care of the words and thoughts and keep them better in mind.
S: What ideas are impellent in this?
C8: I think we all have to learn lessons from? this situation and I want to do my bit!
S: In what kind of way has this crisis nestled in your work or life?
C9: At one hand these were very exhausting weeks but at the other hand there was also time for new things. It opened up opportunities to discuss with colleagues and develop group sessions. I also collect with a client through interviews experiences of how other clients are trying to hold on. He brought all their responses together in a rap song as a kind of alternative therapy.
S: Have you done special things to make this possible?
C9: Yes, I tried to take care of all the things that went well and were precious to me and my family. I tried to keep and cherish them. I didn’t want them to evaporate during this crisis.
Dear reader, If you’ve been reading until the end, I want to refer to the ideas that gave inspiration for these conversations. At radical events or situations of violence or trauma people try to stand firm, keep balance and protect themselves or others. (Wade, 1997; White, 2006 ; Vermeire, 2017 ) Their resilience in these contexts is often powerful and offers important points of entry for change. By having conversations on how they try to deal with radical events and bringing to the foreground their involvements, efforts, a sense of (relational) agency (De Mol ea, 2018) and important values, we offer an antidote for the negative and sometimes limiting effects. Exploring together and listening to each other, opens possibilities for acknowledgement and support, but also for re-connection and solidarity with colleagues, clients and the community of all kinds of care workers. Vikki Reynolds (2012) points out that we are never in the same way involved in difficulties, but we can still keep on striving for an ‘imperfect solidarity’
De Mol, J., Reijmers, E., Verhofstadt, L. & Kuczynski, L. (2018). Reconstructing a sense of relational agency in family therapy. Australian & New Zealand Journal of Family Therapy, 39, 54-66.
Reynolds, V. (2012). An ethical stance for justice-doing in community work and therapy. Journal of Systemic Therapies. 31, 18-33.
Vermeire, S. (2017). Spreken over trauma met kinderen en jongeren. Op zoek naar tekenen van verzet in aanwezigheid van getuigen. In S. Vermeire & J. Sermijn, Wegen naar her-binding. Narratieve, collaboratieve en dialogische praktijken, p. 183 – 193. Antwerpen: Interactie-Academie.
Wade, A. (1997). Despair, resistance, hope: Response-based therapy with victims of violence. In C. Flaskas, I. McCarthy, & J. Sheenan (Eds.), Hope and despair in narrative and family therapy (pp. 62-74). New York: Routledge.
White, M. (2006). Children, trauma and subordinate storyline development. In D. Denborough (Ed.), Trauma: Narrative responses to traumatic experience (pp. 143‐165). Adelaide: Dulwich Centre Publications.