Working with students: Learnings from lockdown

Simon Rudd

“To understand light you need first to have been buried in the deep-down dark.” Macfarlane (2019, p.50)

Photo by Johannes Rapprich from Pexels
Photo by Johannes Rapprich from Pexels

1. PATCHWORK

I have attempted to write about working with students in a way that pays attention to the rhythm and tone of brief counselling in student counselling services and private practice. This essay follows a “patchwork” structure (Batchelor, 2020) stitched into six sections mirroring the standard frame of brief therapy. The word ‘essay’ comes from ‘try or attempt’, and what follows are personal reflections emerging from my field of practice. I wish to communicate a sense of the creative craft of this work, rather than a statement of ‘what works’. In the act of thinking about how students present to me, I hope this re-presentation might provide you with some thinking space for your work with this diverse and challenging group (Lowe, 2014).

The essay draws on symbols and principles from outside of psychotherapy, namely ecology, and systems theory, which I feel provide rich metaphors to fuel our imagination and support our craft (Lent, 2017). Recent work by Robert MacFarlane (2019) invites us downwards, while Richard Schwartz’s Internal Family Systems Therapy (2020) offers us light signalling a way through.

2. MY GROUND

My own path to working as a student counsellor is informed by experiences as a student in the early 2000s. I hope sharing some of my lived experience - as practitioner and former student - might help to give texture to the simplistic ‘student mental health crisis’.

In the 2003/4 academic year I was a fresher attending a large university. I quickly found myself lost and lonely. After a period of increasingly risky behaviour I felt depressed, anxious, and suicidal. This frightening breakdown connected me to developmental (Bromberg, 2011) and intergenerational trauma (see Wolynn, 2016). My misguided attempts at affect-regulation through self-medicating and risk-taking are deeply familiar patterns when working with students.

Yet,

suppose you had a powerful breakdown, followed by a breakthrough, from which you emerged, still breathing. Maybe even barely breathing, but still breathing…What then? Suppose, in fact, that because of your painful yet freeing experience you felt like a new person with a new life…

(Poulos, 2009, p145-6)

On surfacing from this crisis, I entered a messy and nonlinear period of post-traumatic growth. Like the Buddhist image of the lotus in the mud, I found the connection to my own inner sadness or mud to be an essential part of recovery (Gilbert and Choden, 2013). Even in the depths of my crisis there seemed to be a paradoxical striving, an opposite yet connected movement towards light and air (Cotter, 2017). Norman Denzin argues that such epiphanies

radically alter and shape the meanings persons give to themselves and their life projects… [and invite] by recording these experiences in detail, and by listening to the stories people tell about them…

(Denzin, 2009, p109)

I was exceptionally fortunate that during my crisis I was supported to the surface by wonderful guides. The mental health system was able to temporarily contain me during a period of extreme distress. Nurses of the ‘NHS family’ were there for me in my hour of need. From the depths I found a way to the surface, and in 2013 I began working as a student counsellor.

How might my story help us listen to the current stories’ students tell us in our work- especially at a time like this?

3. LOCKDOWN

I am writing within lockdown. This has evoked memories of my previous need to shelter, away from the hustle of university during the spring of 2004. I am now working with students via “Zoom” as we continue to work through the impact of their wounding from within family systems, talking from their childhood bedrooms or from deserted university residences. Working with students during Covid-19 confronts us with our shared vulnerability as a species, highlighting our porous, relational selves; a profound challenge to normative yet deeply flawed assumptions of atomised individualism (Gergen, 2009).

Yet such moments also make possible radical and creative change. Just as the virus has jumped the species barrier, this moment offers us a different view from which to consider the roots of the biopsychosocial dis-ease we encounter within our students. One such view is that afforded by ecological writing. Robert Macfarlane’s most recent work Underland - A Deep Time Journey (2019) provides an extraordinarily rich reservoir of symbols gleaned through journeys below ground, accompanied by trusted guides. This text echoes my sense that in working with students we too might adopt the role of companion - seeking out what has been hidden or buried, that is both toxic and precious. In seeking to bring light and air to shame and dissociation borne from trauma and wounding, we invite student’s hidden parts to emerge from their presenting selves (De Young 2015; Kalsched 2013).

Macfarlane argues we are ‘Generation Anthropocene’, in which our need for change to arrest climate breakdown greatly exceeds our capacity to exert it. We inhabit a world in which new compounds of rock containing deposited microplastics are found in remote Greenland rock, and where melting ‘permafrost’ is giving up its buried secrets at a rate beyond the IPCCs predictions (Kehoe, 2020). This is the background ecology our student clients have been raised in. Is it any wonder anxiety and panic flood our consulting rooms?

Many are wondering whether Covid-19 might be a window of opportunity. Through the holistic apperception afforded by social distancing, might we perceive some of the damage we have caused ourselves? Macfarlane asks, are we being “good ancestors” to our future children and natural ecosystems (2019, p.410)? This profound question resonates within me and my practice. Rather than being haunted by collective trauma we have an opportunity in our relational engagements to descend together. We might encounter ghosts of the past. Yet, in a good-enough encounter, might we emerge changed? After visiting the deep-down places which haunt the person’s capacity to study, work, and love we might turn these ghosts into ancestors (see Wolynn, 2016). In the depths we find breath-taking hidden systems, to which we now descend.

4. IFS

I have found Internal Family Systems therapy (IFS) developed by Richard Schwartz to be a pragmatic, compassionate and integrative tool with which to work within the Underland of students in therapy. IFS emerged from relational, systemic and object relations theories and is an inherently collaborative model.

As in relational thinking (Bromberg, 2011), IFS draws on a model of mind based on multiplicity. IFS suggests that all parts, however dysfunctional, possess an inherent dignity and reflect an adaptive attempt by a self-organising system to survive. The IFS model structures the psyche as comprising the “Self” – the natural leader of our system; innocent inner child-like “Exiles”; and two protector parts – “Managers” and “Firefighters”. For many students in their first encounter with therapy, the IFS language of protective, yet now unskilful ‘parts’ is intuitively grasped and seems to quickly get the prefrontal cortex back online (Fisher, 2017).

‘Jay’ [not his real name] survived a family marked by the chaos of alcoholism. A protective Manager part whose role - in IFS language its ‘burden’ - included always needing to be busy. Jay was an exhausted social butterfly. This successfully kept attention away from his family while at school. Yet this protective role, once essential for psychological survival, was now limiting, not allowing his body-mind any respite or opportunities to share a deeper connection with himself or his new peers at university. The sledgehammer effect of arriving in an unhealthy university system triggered this adaptive Manager into overdrive (Lent, 2017).

IFS terms “Exiles” ‘parts who have been exploited, rejected or abandoned in external relationships, and then subjected to negative judgements from other parts of the system’ (Schwartz and Sweeny, 2020, p.32). These parts carry the shame and self-loathing as well as the innocence of pre-traumatic experience. Jay’s Exiles longed for a stable home life. Yet the unbearable affect connected with the Exiled parts is sequestered and protected by fierce inner critics, also ‘Managers’ - with associated impulses, behaviours, and self-concepts. Managers tend towards left hemisphere informed ways of perceiving the world (McGilchrist, 2009), often intellectually controlling and persuasive. In their genuine but misguided attempt at keeping Exiled parts at bay, they also often present as perfectionists.

Another example might be ‘Wai’. She explained how counselling sessions kept her from her punishing work regime. This Manager part argued that only through an all-night work routine would her grades be ‘worthy’. Strategies of apathy and self-sabotage are also common signs of a Manager part, sustaining a withdrawn and hypo-aroused state, sabotaging client’s capacity to outgrow earlier adaptations and risk an Exiled part surfacing.

In an “emergency”, reactive and impulsive ‘Firefighters’ parts are triggered by this very fear - of Exiles emerging with their associated memories of trauma. Firefighters flood clients with a rapid response to regulate intolerable affect - through binge and purging, or dissociation.

How do we support these parts to unburden from their historical roles? IFS argue that psychological health is an ongoing process of accessing the natural leader of the system - a part he calls “Self”. When in Self people report feeling elements of the eight C’s:

Clarity of purpose, such as a relational recollection of why 'Sadie' choose to study ‘History of Art’ before the relentless deadlines knocked out her capacity to mentalize and focus;

Connectedness within themselves and others such that stems from a common realisation among Freshers that they are not alone in despairing about the challenge of ‘networking’;

Courageous - we honour the client that crosses the threshold into the counselling room, to tackle the next piece of work or a relationship in need of repair following rupture;

Confident about their past and future which we must often hold in our early sessions;

Compassion towards their inner world and psychological pain or ‘problematic’ behaviours or impulses;

Calm is a key body-mind state that our presence offers - an embodiment of a system in harmony and is key to initial stabilising interventions such as grounding exercises;

Creativity might be the return to practices of self-care such as movement, exercise, art, or journaling which extends beyond the 50-minute hour;

Finally, is the role of Curiosity - the fuel within the room, that allows us to descend with a 'both/and' perspective of mind and heart, rather than to avoid, disconnect or dissociate from psychic pain.

Our aim in session is to foster moments of meeting that allow qualities of ‘Self’ to be present (Schwartz and Sweeny, 2020, p.50-53). IFS engages student and therapist with their internal landscape while also paying close attention to the nested system of relational and institutional stress they are surviving in.

5. UNIVERSITIES AS SITES OF INFECTION

If we take the idea of a university as an ecosystem, we can attune to the impact of crossing the boundary and entering a new habitat. The habitat that students find is often alien and alienating. For many international students this may begin with their engagement with structures of power even before stepping on UK soil. Punishing visa application processes outsourced to corporate organisations, aggressive questioning, and hours in immigration lines are just some realities of studying in the UK. Many international students quickly realise that to pass this assignment they need to present as the ‘good immigrant’ (Shukla, 2016) rather than just a person seeking their own path through late adolescence.

Students arrive with high expectations and collective myths about what they should find here - steeped in histories of empire, colonialism, and post-colonial imaginations of the west. Instead they are often quickly disillusioned, often without relational guides. The bureaucratic burden is somewhat eased by the tremendous work of study support teams helping students navigate absurd bureaucratic double binds such as how to pay a rent guarantee from a UK bank before being able to set up a bank account – for which you need proof of address. Of course, all of these ‘inconveniences’ can be soothed if you have money, but for students on scholarships, or from global majority populations who often arrive ‘just in time’ because of their tight budget and visa restrictions, hurdles are already in place. It takes a small set back to quickly leave them disadvantaged.

These stressors begin to add up for students as they embark on a course of study. For many years I would talk with colleagues about the ‘culture’ - that seems to make our students sick. The neoliberal university is offering a version of student life which we cannot divorce from the ‘mental health crisis’. Rather than offering an outlook that encourages a collaborative process of apprenticeship into academic and creative entanglements with the web of urgent questions of our age, this is an education within an atomised consumerist system (Lent, 2017) in which ‘I pass, or I fail’.

Just as IFS engages with the inner systems, we must engage with the impact of a system created by and for white European men (Ferguson et al, 2019). Decolonising curriculum is one example of how we may begin to dismantle systemic structures of power, bringing questions of class, race, gender, ability, and sexuality into dialogue so that these ghosts can be owned, acknowledged, and transformed.

The crisis in our university is a tale of unsupported staff within an unhealthy system. Academics working 60-hour weeks, delivering programmes and trying to research while on insecure contracts. Endless funding applications must evidence their individual worth, they must publish or die. Students arrive seeking educational attunement, contingent mirroring of their progress and a secure base from which to think together. Instead they attach to what is available.

Often students report feeling like they need to be ‘there already’ - rather than being with the unknowable uncertainties of life. The defence of intellectualising - an imprisoning attempt at controlling life - is of course an ideal for the academic mind. Yet the ‘body keeps the score’ (Van der Kolk, 2015). Just as environmental destruction of mining and deforestation scour our soil, we see arms scored by cutting, frayed nails and picked skin. This is damage to the very fabric of our students’ being; the boundary of relatedness; skin that is often left to heal just enough to be hurt again when things ‘return to normal’. Like an ecosystem marked by illegal logging which increases the risk of a virus breaking the species barrier and infecting the psyche, the IFS approach is about rewilding and encouraging the Self to return to its natural state - a stepping back and observing with sensitivity to the historical legacies of systems giving rise to burdened parts and contemporary systems that trigger these parts.

At a time of Covid-19 how might we address these sites of infection and support those students who have been exposed to this site of infection? What would not returning to ‘business as usual’ in the context of working with students in counselling be or look like?

6. SURFACING

We resurface as the lockdown begins to loosen. We have survived this event, but changed. Like students who courageously cross into the potential space of a therapeutic encounter, down from their depths we reach the end of our few weeks together. We have had a radical opportunity. We ask whether we are being good ancestors to our unknowable future communities and our past traumatised parts.

Our students have developed amidst the pace of technological change, environmental degradation and schooling systems that have significant bearings on the psyche. Nick Duffell’s (2000) concept of the ‘boarding school survivor’ - a form of self-care system (Kalsched, 2013) - speaks to the way a young person adapts to the rupture of attachment bonds and develops a “survival personality”. I think many of our young people have survived the institutions of school, and now university, by going underground. Such a strategy carries burdens which might find release or reinforcement depending on the environments they then encounter. The chance of neuroplasticity offered in our work - a relational recovery - needs to be sustainable beyond our brief therapy. IFS is a model that students might take with them. An experience of relating to their inner and outer parts from ‘Self’ with its inherent qualities of care and appreciation of our shared planetary vulnerabilities.

We tentatively step outside as the lockdown eases. Our eyes adjust to the bright light of summer and we feel cool air on our skin once more. The cycle of the academic year flows on pointing to an ending. I hope that our time together with its descent and emergence might have offered you an accompaniment and witnessing of the dignity and catastrophes from which protective parts were born and might be released.

Simon Rudd is a UKCP and BACP registered integrative psychotherapist, working in private practice and in higher education counselling in central London. He has a special interest inworking with students as they encounter transitions and process relational trauma, as well as well as engaging mindfully with the built and natural environment to promote health and wellbeing.
Simon-Rudd-sq

References

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