Something solid when all is tumbling: The Student Counselling Service in the pandemic

Photo of the pillars of the Acropolis of Athens.
Photo credit: Cristina Gottardi, Unsplash CC0

In this post, Fingal Dorman, Counsellor at the University’s Student Counselling Service, reflects on the challenges of carrying on with his work from home and the importance of providing a solid space for students in particularly disquieting times…

These times are unsettling.

At a time when we have all been enclosed in our separate boxes, I’d like to give a window into what the Student Counselling Service looks like in this time: how we have adapted and responded, to offer something that is stable and consistent when so many things are shifting.

In February, the idea of counselling from my wee flat was quite laughable. I joked about getting a lock for my bedroom door only to find myself, a few weeks later, sweatily hacking away at my doorframe. Suddenly, things that were supposed to be separate collided as home school set up in the lounge and my kids drew colour coded signs to show just how quiet things needed to be the other side of the lock.

These kind of changes were a lot to adjust to so fast, and part of the challenge was to find somewhere solid to stand when the ground underneath was slippery and muddy. Colleagues talked about this uncertainty, and their pride in being part of a team that worked hard to adapt their skills quickly in such uncertainty.

Photo: Daniel H. Bailey, Getty Images

An important part of counselling is providing a safe and stable space in which to process what you are finding difficult or distressing. At a time of huge difficulty and distress, when little was stable, we needed to respond quickly. But it was also crucial to offer something solid.

While the team are very experienced in offering face to face counselling, some had less experience of working remotely via telephone or online platforms. We needed to make sure equipment was in place for this remote working and make sure our systems were secure enough for the sensitive nature of this work. We also needed to arrange extra training in remote counselling as a professional requirement.

But back in March, while putting these systems in place, we still needed to respond quickly. We offered crisis support by telephone, to listen to students’ current situation and help them identify support systems.

We already had a wide range of resources geared towards helping people develop ways of coping and responding to the feelings and situations they were finding overwhelming. Students could access tailored self-help material, including resources focussed on Covid-19, with the option of a counsellor offering regular reviews.

It really helped to link with other good work across the university. The Chaplaincy responded with a blog and podcast, recognising the challenges of this time, offering different perspectives and ways to cope.

Early on in the pandemic, I listened to a trauma therapist suggest key ways of looking after ourselves to reduce the potential trauma of Covid. I had conversations with students about how they could carve out what they needed, in a situation that was far from ideal. We talked about finding structure when there was none, about finding ways to move their body and finding places they could get outside, about virtually visiting cultural spaces that were physically closed. We discussed ways of connecting with people in their own lives or through online support. This may involve taking the risk of saying, “I’m finding this hard,” to which the response may be, “me too!”

Crisis services locally and around the world were also invaluable.

Important as all these things were, they did not change how genuinely difficult this situation was. Issues that had been there before had not gone away. Often they had intensified. We were very glad to quickly be able to resume counselling again, providing a safe, confidential space via telephone at first, then via video platform.

While we missed the in-person contact, we found that remote counselling was different, not poorer quality. Yes, there were times when the tech got in the way. However, particularly on the telephone, I found an immediacy I did not expect. Rather than being disconnected, I found it a different kind of embodied experience. I was aware of the other person’s voice in my ears, my bare feet on my floor, attuning one sense more deeply to what they were saying. I could see the way students made use of the sessions and the difference it made to have that space to talk and process difficult experiences.

I wish this virus would go away. For now, though, and as returning to campus brings challenges, having this virtual space is more important than ever. The Counselling Service is open to every student. When a student contacts us, we will arrange an initial session to discuss their situation and make a plan together for the next steps that are best suited to them.

I spent a lot of time on my windowsill this Spring, first watching the goldfinches, then as the leaves began to hide them from view, impatiently waiting for the swifts to arrive. They seemed to take so long I was worried that this year, of all years, they would not come. They did come and their shrieks were so welcomed this Summer. As the seasons change again and this virus is still here, still unsettling and forcing us to adapt over and over, one of the things the counselling service can do is offer a solid space to deal with it, and to help students find things that can sustain them.

RSPB images

photograph of the authorFingal Dorman

Fingal Dorman is a BACP accredited counsellor. He has also worked in collective advocacy for mental health and other community based roles. He was very glad that running on Arthur’s Seat was still possible during lockdown.

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