Teletherapy helps the Wilton High School community face the depths of loss

Angelina Miceli discusses how to best cope with loss

Positive+Directions+currently+offers+teletherapy+to+help+students%2C+and+everyone%2C+deal+with+the+stress+in+their+lives.

Positive Directions

Positive Directions currently offers teletherapy to help students, and everyone, deal with the stress in their lives.

Ria Raniwala, Head of News

Over the past eight months, the Wilton community has endured countless tragedies and losses. Coping in any case can be difficult, but under the current circumstances it seems almost impossible to manage both personal lives and the constant change the pandemic has put the town through. The WHS Forum sat down with Positive Directions Clinical Director Angelina Miceli, LCSW to discuss trauma during the pandemic, how to process it, and how to support one another.

Q: How do you think COVID-19 has affected the way students, especially high school students, process their trauma? And how do you think the way you offer therapy in this time plays into that?

A: I think it will come as no surprise when I say that COVID-19 has complicated everything, and exacerbated all mental health issues, definitely including grief, trauma, and loss. Because we’re so disconnected from everyone, connection and closure are such a big part of dealing with trauma and being able to work through it. Having that in and of itself taken away from us, that ability to connect with others, really complicates those processes. And also, with the fact that there have been multiple losses within the Wilton community specifically, let’s couple those losses with all of the various other losses we’ve had since March. We’ve got loss of our social support, we’ve got loss of school in the way we once knew it, we’ve got loss of potential family members, we’ve got loss of jobs that people are dealing with, we’ve got loss all around us we’ve been dealing with since March. To then have these really traumatic losses added to that, absolutely exacerbates all of those processes and mental health struggles. 

Q: How do you think your approach has changed when it comes to addressing this through therapy?

A: I think there are definitely some clients that respond better to teletherapy than others, but at the end of the day I think teletherapy has been such a wonderful way for us to provide continuity of care. I also think teletherapy has helped provide so much more flexibility during the pandemic, whether that’s people who maybe otherwise would’ve forgotten about their session, not had transportation to their session, or had not been able to get to their session because it butted too close to work or school or what have you. Teletherapy has really offered a lot of flexibility around that, where there are so many people that are like: “Alright, I’m done with school at 2:00 so I can hop on a call at 2:15,” which I think has really behooved us in this process and increased our ability to be able to help each other in a meaningful way. With that being said, is teletherapy perfect? By no means will I tell you that teletherapy is perfect. Obviously there are going to be issues with technology, which I’m sure you deal with in Zoom at school. So by no means is it a perfect form of therapy, but I absolutely think it’s had more benefits than detriments to the process.

Q: You mentioned that some clients responded better to teletherapy. Who would you recommend it for?

A: To be honest with you, the person who usually has trouble scheduling things for themselves does best with this. The person who is kind of going all over the place and feeling like they’re overwhelmed in so many different areas of their life that just going to an in-person appointment brings so many factors to take into account like travel time, time of day, traffic, that they may not be able to do that. Someone who really struggles with that or someone who’s looking for ways to get a little bit of relief and learn some tips, tricks, and tools to be able to schedule themselves and decrease their stress. Those are the people that I think really benefit from teletherapy.

Q: When it comes to therapy in general, at what point do you think someone who’s experienced either a loss,  some sort of trauma, or anything in general, do you think it would be right step for them to get professional help?

A: When it’s extremely disruptive to living their life. Whether that’s work, school, or interpersonal relationships. When you’re noticing that it’s taking a detriment on one or all of those things, that’s really the red flag to say “Hey, I think I need a little bit of help.” Now, would I love if people came to see us before things got to that point? Absolutely! There’s so much there to help you preventatively, to keep you from getting to that place. But absolutely, when you’re finding that it has become so disruptive to work, school, and just carrying out your daily activities, that’s really when it’s time to pick up the phone and ask for help.

Q: Especially when it comes to students or younger people, do you have good methods that you’ve seen for coping with loss? You mentioned connection and closure, what is the significance of those?

A: So one of the things that I recommend for many clients is being able to have some level of closure. For example, experiencing a loss and being to commemorate an anniversary coming up. That really helps us be able to gain a sense of closure, and a sense of processing our emotions. I think we also do ourselves a big disservice by thinking that grief and loss are supposed to have this linear trajectory, and I think this has been sort of perpetuated by pop culture references toward grieving and mental health, which is, the “stages of grief.” And yes, there are absolutely stages of grief, but those stages aren’t always linear, and I think that’s where we get mixed up in our expectations for ourselves when we’re dealing with loss. We may think: “Okay, I’m going to feel this way today, I’m going to feel that way tomorrow, and I’m going to feel this way the next day.” That’s not how it goes. I think anyone who has experienced a loss can attest to the fact that it’s cyclical rather than linear. It’s something where on one day you may be feeling crazy amounts of sadness, and on the next you might be feeling kind of okay. You may even have this extended period of time where you’re feeling pretty okay, maybe until 6 months after the loss, and then one day something just hits you. People very often beat themselves up about it, and think “Why aren’t I past this? Why am I still feeling this way? Why aren’t I feeling better?” and I think one of the biggest gifts we can give ourselves is by being gentle with ourselves. Loss is cyclical, not linear, and we can’t expect it to feel like climbing a ladder or a staircase. Sometimes it feels like going in figure eights. I think also being able to talk about that and acknowledge it, and again be gentle with ourselves and have a little bit of grace. It’s a hard thing to do, but it’s very important. We get caught up in these “shoulds” and “musts” of “I should be feeling that,” or “I should be doing this,” which eats away at our ability to process the emotions that are happening for us. I always think about it as putting emotions on top of our emotions. If we can get rid of those external thoughts that we’re chastising ourselves for and just ride the wave of the emotion we’re in, we’ll be in a much better place.

Q: How do you think this cyclical nature of grief plays into coming back to school and returning to regular activities after experiencing such a heavy loss?

A: It’s absolutely challenging. It’s hard with any loss to get back to life because we’re still reeling from this experience and this trauma. So of course, it’ll be more difficult to concentrate and more difficult to keep up your motivation and get things done when you’re feeling loss, or shock. I can imagine especially with some of the things that have happened in the Wilton community recently; that especially comes with its own set of really challenging emotions to work through, one of which being that shock. There may be guilt associated with that loss, or an elevated level of trauma. Those things can all have an impact on how we get back to, and how successful we are at getting back to life.

Q: You also mentioned connection as a way of coping earlier and how that’s difficult right now because of COVID-19. How is connection important to coping with trauma, and how can we adapt it to fit our current circumstances?

A: We’ve created communities since we were Neanderthals; we’re kind of like “pack” mentality people. Even those of us, and I identify as one of them, who are self-proclaimed “introverts” who don’t love socialization to a huge degree, are still grappling with such a depleted level of socialization from the pandemic. Not having that absolutely adds an extra layer, and I think that’s our call to go out of our way to create other avenues through which to gain and maintain community. One of the things I recommend for my clients all the time is to set a standing time or date with a group of your friends, so you know you have a Zoom call to look forward to. Maybe you’re not going downtown, shopping every Saturday night or you’re not going out for coffee every Sunday morning, but maybe every Sunday morning you’re having coffee together over Zoom and that’s your way of connecting. I think it’s important we acknowledge that so we can mindfully and actively choose to do things that keep us even more connected. It’s not exactly the same, but it’s better than nothing for sure.

Q: The whole process of grief is different for everyone, but is there any kind of universal advice you could offer for managing everything?

A: I think the most universal advice I could give without tailoring it to any one specific person or process is really to go back to what I was saying earlier and be gentle with yourself. Ride the wave of that emotion and engage in self-care. Make sure you’re taking care of you, because if you aren’t, then who is, right? You are your best advocate, and you are your best caretaker. You’re the person that knows what’s going on for you, and you know what you like better than anyone else on this Earth. So being able to be gentle with yourself and have a little grace, getting rid of those “shoulds” and “musts” and expectations you have about where you should be in the process, and being able to just be. I can almost guarantee you that if that’s the one thing you do, it’ll be a lot smoother and easier to process those emotions. “The only way out is through,” is a cliche for a reason. We’ve got to actually allow ourselves to both feel and acknowledge how we’re feeling in order to move through that.

Q: When you talk about self care, what exactly does that look like?

A: It’s different for everybody. My version of self-care is probably very different from your version of self care, and my version of self care as an introvert is probably very different from my husband’s version as an extrovert. It may be something as simple as going to bed early. It may be something like doing yoga every day and holding yourself accountable to doing that one thing for you that you know is good for you. It could be something like setting up time to socialize with your friends via Zoom or socially distanced. I think it definitely looks different for everybody, but it’s mainly about knowing what fills your bucket and doing it.

Q: How can fellow students and community members support people who are grieving in a way that helps instead of unintentionally hurts?

A: I think so much of that comes down to just being there in a nonjudgemental manner. Being there to say, “Wow, I see that. That sounds awful,” or “Tell me more.” Just those kind of open-ended questions, that validation of people’s feelings. That’s what makes people build relationships and start to feel better in therapy. Just having someone say “Wow, it sounds like you’re really struggling with that,” and then the other person says something like “Oh my God, yes I am! Thank you for finally saying that!” It feels so good to just be able to, and not in an “Oh I get exactly how you feel, let me tell you I dealt with it,” sort of way, but in a “Yes, I hear you, and I acknowledge what you’re going through, tell me more,” type of way. Actively listening is so important, and another piece of that is being able to say “What I’m hearing you say is…” or “Wow, it sounds like….” That shows somebody that you aren’t just hearing what they’re saying and letting it go in one ear and out the other, but you’re actively listening to them and acknowledging that for what it is. And again, maybe following that up with “Wow, tell me more about that,” or “What’s that like for you?” There’s just so much power in those questions

Q: What about support for the long-term?

A: I think that’s where counseling often come into play, because absolutely there’s this outpouring of support at the beginning and then that kind of gradually fades. I think that’s a natural progression – that’s a natural thing to have happened, that gradually with time, things calm down. And unfortunately with that, that’s when the dinners stop being cooked for you and put on your doorstep, and the cards stop coming in the mail, and this, that, and the third. So I think that’s when reaching out for help, if you’re still in that place where you’re feeling like “Oh my God, everyone else has moved forward and I haven’t. I’m still reeling from this.” I think that’s absolutely the point where you extend that bubble to asking for help from a professional.

Wilton High School, and it’s fellow community members, has definitely faced a whole lot more than just COVID-19 during 2020, and The Forum is grateful to have spoken with Positive Directions social worker, Angelina Miceli about how to deal with everything going on. For more information on counseling services, visit https://www.positivedirections.org/.