“How Have Things Changed?” Psychologists Share Their Experiences in Dealing with the Coronavirus Pandemic
We asked a group of psychologists, “How have things changed for you in the shut-down and how are you doing at this point?” About half replied back in time for this issue. In this feature we report on how colleagues are managing the changes, mostly verbatim with some edited for length.
Dr. Gail Gillespie has been in private practice in New Orleans since 1996, specializing in evaluating and treating school-aged children and their families. “Existence in the time of a pandemic Gillespie said. “Because about 80% of my practice is face-to-face assessment, 80% of my business came to an abrupt halt. Thankfully I qualified for the Paycheck Protection Program and I am very grateful for the two months of income that will be replaced and forgiven. In the interim, I am catching up on my to-do list that I never thought I would have time to get to. This tech dinosaur has also learned how to do teletherapy and Zoom meetings, and I have finally created a weekly Zoom meeting demonstrating Emotional Freedom Technique which I am offering for free to front-line healthcare workers, gig workers, service industry folks, anyone who has lost their income, and anyone who has experienced the death or severe illness of a loved one due to Covid-19,” she said.
“In this time in which the entire earth has taken a pause – a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity of forced stillness – I am afforded the opportunity to re-assess my priorities. Living in the French Quarter, I am finally able to truly appreciate the amazing architectural beauty and history in which I am surrounded. For the first time I look forward to walking down Bourbon Street – because it is clean and completely empty! I am now more cognizant of what is truly important: quality human connection, stillness and self-reflection, exuberant experiences and adventure to be created, an appreciation for nature, and prioritizing activities that boost my immune system and reduce stress! I have gained clarity in what activities in my practice feed my soul and what activities that I am ready to release. I have honestly enjoyed this pause but am looking forward to manifesting a more quality, exciting and adventurous life!”
Clinical Neuropsychologist, Dr. Matthew Holcomb, is also in private practice in the New Orleans area. “The shut-down has been hard on a professional and personal level,” Dr. Holcomb said. “Professionally I was just starting to ‘hit my stride’ and my identity as a professional was starting to finally solidify. The momentum that I had built feels like it has stalled out. It’s also been a time for reflection, in that I have been solidly career focused for the last few years and COVID-19 has forced me to stop and take stock of where I am in life and the choices I’ve been making,” he said.
“Personally, its been an adjustment having so much free time on my hands. The first few weeks was wrapping up patient evaluations. Then some time getting caught up on some manuscript writing, but after that its been rough figuring out how to ‘fill my day.’ I routinely talk to some of my elderly patients about ‘having a plan’ for their retirement. Not being sedentary and making plans. I’ve realized how important that is at all ages and stages in life. Making a plan each night of things to do around the house (no matter how small) or goals to accomplish for the next day, or in the near term have been so helpful in getting me through the shutdown,” he said.
“Finally, I have spent a lot of time reconnecting with family. Happy Hour and game nights over zoom have created some treasured memories.”
Dr. Thompson Davis III, Professor of Psychology at LSU Baton Rouge and Director of the Laboratory for Anxiety, Phobia, & Internalizing Disorder Studies has revamped his desks.
“My new ‘mobile workstation’ at the kitchen table composed of my iPad linked to my laptop via Duet for use as a seamless second monitor so I can use my laptop while I zoom/team/etc. while I also have one of my children’s room monitors on hand to be sure things aren’t getting too wild! Confidential video meetings are of course done in a separate room,” Dr. Davis said.
“I think one of the biggest changes is that my work day and work week have extended and bled together (i.e., the day is longer and I’m working even more on weekends than before) as I and my wife trade off roles as telecommuters, preschool/kindergarten teachers, parents, spouses, etc.”
Dr. Alan Coulter, a licensed psychologist in practice now for his 51st year, maintained a small number of clients as a school psychologist providing organizational development consultation, before the COVID19 sequestration.
“My work was largely face-to-face involving travel,” he said. “In this new, temporary period, I have maintained those clients at about 75% of the previous activity level. Some of past work is ‘on hold’ until schools return to typical locations. Predictably, some new work with these clients has emerged focused on adapting to closed school buildings and physical distancing. Maintaining social emotional connections with clients has become a more deliberate task as everyone learns to ‘zoom’ as a way of routine communication. I expect this new form of doing my work to continue for six to twelve months. I agree with others, ‘We’ll get through this.’ And we’ll all learn new skills that will make us more effective and helpful to our communities.”
Dr. Bill McCown is Coordinator of the Psychology Program at University of Louisiana at Monroe and Associate Dean for Research, College of Business and Social Sciences, as well as a Licensed Clinical Psychologist.
“We are working our butts off! It is just nonstop. We are not in the front line but darn, it is incredible. Most college professors are keeping unbelievable hours. From what I’ve seen in every department, all are working nonstop in ways they could not have imagined a few months ago,” Dr. McCown said.
“We do everything we did previously: we prepare lectures, grade assignments, advise students, write letters of recommendation, conduct research. But we also have to find innovative ways to teach and reach students, many of whom are stressed and vulnerable.
“Today’s highlights: ‘My grandmother died. My father tested positive last week. Can I be late on assignment five?’ and (from an Intro Psych student) ‘Do you really think this virus stuff is real or is it made up? My parents are having an argument and I have to ask someone I can trust.’
“Each student and class is different and has unique needs. Fortunately, our deans, administration, and Supervising Boards realize the need for local solutions,” he said. The key has been that we have been given the freedom to respond locally. Academics are generally pretty creative people and their heart is in their work. Like psychologists, they can usually find really good solutions if given the chance.
“There is no manual for this sudden transition, no guru, no roadmap. Faculty creativity has been exceptional. So has student commitment and effort. I’m struck by the number of students who now have unexpected obligations. Some are taking care of siblings, others of sick family members. Many have stepped up to volunteer to help their communities in any way they can. Some are also working jobsany jobs they can find- to help support their families. It’s hard for these students to maintain the academic focus they had in March. But they are really trying,” he said.
“Many students turn to Psychology faculty for objective information. They trust us and ask all kinds of questions! They know our profession is evidence-based. We answer lots of questions. We help them read data and understand the risks and models. What we don’t know we look up or refer to someone who does.
“Other students, frankly want counseling or therapy from us now, probably for similar reasons. They know us and that we are believable. We are evidence-based. What we say makes more sense to them than what they hear on social media. Psychology faculty have to be especially careful to avoid any dual relationships. But what I’ve seen they’re doing a great job in being helpful to these students while also being mindful of ethical issues. We listen and make lots of careful referrals.
“Perhaps just as importantly, we convey a sense of optimism and reasonableness. This helps combat the gut feeling that everything is out of control. Life will get better.”
Dr. Katherine Robison practices in Metairie and works evaluating youngsters. “How have things changed in the shut down? I’m a school psychologist in private practice in the New Orleans area. With regard to my practice, I’m basically shut down since I can’t test kids ‘virtually.’ I am utilizing online or ‘remote administration’ rating scales, but this is a small part of the evaluation. I have used Zoom for a few tele therapy sessions, but it’s ‘not the same’ as an in-person session since I see children. I am happy to have finally caught up on reports!,” she said.
“On a personal level, I really miss being around people! But the shut-down has been good for me in some ways. I’m spending time outdoors and enjoying bike rides through City Park.”
Dr. Charles Burchell is a licensed Clinical Psychologist who has had a largely independent practice for over 35 years, and lived and practiced in Baton Rouge, New Orleans, and Texas. “I suppose my life mirrors that of many others that you know. Back in March, on the advice of my primary care physician, I changed to working from home at one parttime position; and my consulting practice is now one-hundred percent online. Professionally, I conduct business through a combination of mostly emails and HIPPAcompliant TeleHealth services. I’ve been attending more webinars and am planning to virtually attend a Forensic Psychology conference,” he said. Dr. Kim VanGeffen is in solo private practice in New Orleans. “COVID-19 has required adapting to many changes and a lot of flexibility, neither of which are my strong suit. I have switched to doing tele psychology and phone sessions although my billed hours have drastically dropped. Before the stay-at-home orders, I did a large amount of psychological testing which is not possible now. I look forward to seeing people in my office again as I find that I prefer face-to-face work over tele psychology. I am trying to maintain my natural optimism and to find as many of the silver linings in these clouds as I can. I am using the extra free time to catch up on office paper work which had been neglected for the past several months. I am also on the Board of Directors of LPA and our Board is spending a lot of time trying to provide services to our members during these trying times. Keeping busy and productive keeps me sane. I am also keeping in touch with family, friends and colleagues by email, on line gatherings and telephone chats which is very important when we are so isolated.”
Dr. Charles Burchell is a licensed Clinical Psychologist who has had a largely independent practice for over 35 years, and lived and practiced in Baton Rouge, New Orleans, and Texas.
“I suppose my life mirrors that of many others that you know. Back in
March, on the advice of my primary care physician, I changed to working from home at one parttime position; and my consulting practice is now one-hundred percent online. Professionally, I conduct business through a combination of mostly emails and HIPPAcompliant TeleHealth services. I’ve been attending more webinars and am planning to virtually attend a Forensic Psychology conference,” he said.
“On a personal note, I stopped attending religious services even before modifications in ritual and eventual cessation of public gatherings had been announced. I stopped going into WWOZ, the community supported FM radio station in New Orleans (online at wwoz.org) for my weekly Friday show, ‘Jazz From The French Market.’ Instead, like some others, I record the shows at home instead of a live presentation. I didn’t have a problem with feeling safe at ‘OZ; I just was, and am, obeying the ‘stay at home’ government recommendations. Going to the radio station would have been a weekly 180- mile trip.
“Of course socializing in person is nonexistent, so I call, text, FaceTime, IG, Facebook, tweet, and use Messenger to maintain that very human contact. This is especially useful for staying in touch with close friends (one whom I have known since age three) and my two adult children (one who currently lives in Rome, Italy).
“Days are filled with professional tasks, and watching all kinds of TV (including participating with a small group of friends for Netflix parties who used to meet up to see movies in theaters), more reading, and cleaning (no positive correlation here between motivation for housework and increased time availability). I’m more motivated to learn Italian on my Duolingo app; before the pandemic I might have time to use it two or three times a week or lessnow I’m up to 73 days straight!”
Dr. Traci Olivier is a pediatric neuropsychologist at Our Lady of the Lake Children’s Health Development & Therapy Center. She has a part-time practice at the Neuropsychology Center of Louisiana and serves as a local expert advisor for Cogstate cognitive science research company.
“As a pediatric neuropsychologist, my practice is primarily focused on neuropsychological evaluations.,” she said. “There has been much discussion in professional circles about the feasibility, validity, and ethical considerations of using telemedicine for psychological and neuropsychological testing. After much research and contemplation about using tele-testing, I decided not to pursue this avenue of service delivery. Therefore, my time has been dedicated to completing current evaluations (e.g., providing feedback, finalizing reports) and seeing new patients for initial visits – all via telemedicine, or video visits. The use of telemedicine platforms and the quietness around the office are perhaps two of the most significant changes that I have noticed. My practicum students are on hiatus for now, which is also a change. Interestingly, this time has been a welcome period of rest and refreshing – a time to catch up, contemplate priorities, and plan for the future. I realize that there are those who have become incredibly busy over the past several weeks, and for many, this is a time of significant stress. My heart goes out to those people. I am so blessed, however, to be able to use this time to plan and invest.
Dr. Jamie Landry, is married with two, energetic, fun-loving boys. She is in the Covington, Mandeville area and notes that she loves camping and the outdoors.
“With a part time practice focused on assessment, most of my work has been put on hold during the stay at home order. Like many others, I’ve been spending more of my time with my family, keeping my kids engaged in some educational activities and having some good old fashioned family fun. I’m doing well but look forward to achieving a sense of normalcy again.
Dr. Randee Booksh is a licensed clinical and neuropsychologist. “My small private practice is split between neuropsychological/psychological evaluations and therapy patients. I work with two other neuropsychologists who do the same and we share many resources, including a testing assistant, office space, and testing materials, etc.” Dr. Booksh said.
“So what has changed? I only go to the office to pick up supplies or mail. I see patients via telemedicine, which I had never done before, except an occasional emergency phone session. Now I see my established therapy patients and a handful of new patients and conduct some brief psychological evaluations when I feel I can answer the referral question via tools I can use during a video session. I cannot conduct neuropsychological evaluations this way. I’m working much fewer paid hours, but the work is harder. Everything I do at home takes longer than if I was at the office,” she said.
“The telemedicine curve has been steep for me. I find it requires more preparation, a different kind of attention, and use of different tools. At the same time, I’m immensely grateful that it’s available and I know that I will continue to do some telemedicine indefinitely. Patients are significantly more distressed, with so many in crisis. Established patients with anxiety and trauma related disorders are really struggling and finding it difficult to maintain gains made in therapy, previously. I’m experiencing increased stress, anxiety, and fatigue too. I’m finding I need greater self-care to be prepared and able to meet the changing needs of the patients I see.
“Focus on the shared practice has shifted to when and how we will (eventually) reopen and what that will look like. We’ve developed a strategy to start low and go slow. We’ve written a safety plan, posted important safety guidelines on the wall, and removed chairs from the waiting room. We are staggering times and using alternate entrances, so patients don’t come in contact with each other. We’ve purchased lots of hand sanitizer, face shields, acrylic desk partitions, masks, Lysol wipes, etc. I cannot imagine trying to figure this out or implement it by myself. My colleagues and coworkers made it possible.
“As far as my home life, the biggest change is I spend a lot, and I mean a whole lot, of time with my husband. He’s an audiovisual technician, labor coordinator for conventions, and musician, so all of his work has cancelled for the remainder of the year. Luckily, we get along really well. Again, hooray for technology, but I’m sure getting tired of virtual family visits. I get dizzy when the grandkids run with the phone during Facetime and I can’t wait to put my hands on the bellies of my two pregnant daughters. Overall, I think I’m adapting very well. I’m extremely fortunate with many resources and it can still get overwhelming. I can’t imagine trying to do this alone.
Dr. Melissa Dufrene has worked full-time in private practice at her office in the Algiers neighborhood of New Orleans for the last 6 years. She primarily provides individual therapy, but also completes 1-2 testing cases per work. She is married with two young boys (ages 2 and almost 5).
“Since quarantine,” Dr. Dufrene said, “I have been seeing my clients via a telehealth platform (doxy.me). Fortunately, I had been using this platform as needed for several years. In that way, the transition was easy. However, I am now only working 20 hours/week because my two kids obviously are staying at home. This has required managing a strict schedule and coordination with my husband’s work, who works in an essential field,” she said. “For me, one of the greatest struggles has been the immediate shift between caring for the boys and diving right into my therapy appointments, then right back into parenting. This last week I took two days off because I felt I needed a respite from clients. I have also had to decline new clients and requests for other types of work. At the same time, I’m thankful for the strict scheduling that has been needed because it is keeping me very busy. I am also extremely thankful for the lovely weather that Louisiana has bestowed upon us in recent months. Clinically, this has been an interesting experience. My client’s responses to the current situation range from, “Nothing is going on. I’m bored and have nothing to talk about.” to significant emotional turmoil. My main points of emphasis with everyone has been empathetic support and normalization. I believe these approaches have provided immediate relief from the self-judgment that many people are battling. Quite frankly, I think one of the most important, and mutually beneficial aspects of therapy has been socialization.”
Dr. James (Pat) Thompson, is a clinical psychologist in Houston, but attended Tulane University his freshman year and maintains such a close connection to New Orleans that he is also licensed in Louisiana and is an active member of the Louisiana Psychological Association.
“These are indeed sad, weird, and frightening times for everybody and that includes psychologists. The COVID-19 crisis has changed everybody’s life,” Dr. Thompson said. “If someone had told me six months ago that I would be doing psychotherapy sessions entirely by telehealth, I would have thought they were schizophrenic.
If someone had told me six months ago that I would be frightened and wearing a mask every time I go to the grocery store, I would have thought they stopped taking their medication. If someone had told me six months ago that I would be instructing patients to avoid in vivo meetings with friends and family, I would have thought they were taking some bad drugs. If someone had told me six months ago that I would be telling patients to not attend Easter services in person, I would have thought they were off their rocker. If someone had told me six months ago that I would not be able to eat inside my favorite restaurants in Houston and/or New Orleans, I would have wondered if there was something in the water they were drinking,” he said.
“I visited my favorite place in the world, New Orleans, the weekend after Mardi Gras this year. When I arrived in New Orleans, there were no COVID-19 cases in Louisiana. On the day of my departure, while I was waiting for my plane at the Louis Armstrong Airport, the Times Picayune reported one case in Jefferson Parish which was subsequently transferred to the Southeastern Louisiana VA Medical Center. We all know what happened from there. If someone had told me six months ago that I would not be able to visit New Orleans, I would have laughed in their face.
“While I was in New Orleans in early March, I attended two public performances. I had a great time at both events. The first one was at the Fillmore and I saw the bands Sweet Crude and Rebirth Brass Band. I just learned today (4/30/2020) from an article in the Times Picayune that two of the band members of Sweet Crude were positive for COVID19. Today I also learned that rashes and blisters on the fingertips are some of the symptoms of COVID-19. About two weeks after I visited New Orleans, I developed these symptoms along with diarrhea and muscle pain. I went to my PCP and it was early in the crisis and they did not do a test for the virus. I am wondering if I was exposed and if I have antibodies. I called my PCP and she told me that tests for antibodies are not readily available.
“I have two patients who are positive for COVID-19. They are learning from me and I am learning from them.
“I am already missing New Orleans. I will miss attending the LPA convention and most likely the workshop in the fall. I missed attending the French Quarter Festival and am missing attending plays at Le Petite Theater. I will most likely miss the Tulane homecoming game and the Tulane Psychiatry conferences that I have been attending for the last few years. I cannot imagine what a season without the Astros, LSU Tigers, Tulane Green Wave, University of Houston Cougars and the Saints will be like,” he said.
“I remember the morning that Katrina was approaching New Orleans. I was gripped with fear and anticipation as I thought about what the storm might do to my favorite city. This crisis has the same feeling, but it is on a global scale.
“It is strange and awkward working with patients by telehealth. Sometimes it is difficult to hear what they are saying. Sometimes it is difficult for them to hear what I am saying. I am finding that some patients who suffer from severe problems communicating with other humans are very happy to be forced to stay at home and have no human contact. Other patients who have intact social skills are suffering deeply and report feeling like they are in prison in their own home.
“The impact on the African-American community and their rich culture, music and history in Houston and New Orleans makes me cry.
“This is a time for everyone to muddle through this crisis the best we can and to remain adaptable and cooperative. It is important to extend our help to others and reach out for help when we need it ourselves. I have opposed telehealth as a means of conducting psychotherapy for years. I am seeing its merits now and realize it has possibilities for the future after the virus has subsided. My motto now is to bend with the prevailing winds like a birch tree. We can get through this catastrophe together. United we will stand. Divided we will fall.”