Learning How to Make Progress Toward Goals When It Feels Like Life Is Holding You Back

The coronavirus pandemic may have caught the world off guard; but adapting to tough situations to meet the needs of clients whose worlds are turned upside down isn’t a new challenge for social workers — it’s part of the job.

From crisis intervention to clinical counseling to telehealth, Brittani Morris, clinical assistant professor at the USC Suzanne Dworak-Peck School of Social Work, sees no shortage of opportunities for social workers to step in to help those who will be struggling for years to come.

“I think one of the greatest challenges that society is facing are issues related to grief and anticipatory grief,” said Morris. “We have all lost something or someone at this point, and it’s the thought that things really could get worse that plagues us.”

Moving forward requires finding a balance between grief and gratitude, grounding yourself in what you can control and taking things one step at a time, Morris explained. But while most people will be able to take these steps, some will struggle and need support — a lesson she hopes to emphasize to her students this summer.

Adapting Learning Strategies During the Pandemic  

One of the first courses that students take on with the MSW@USC program is the Virtual Field Practicum, a 15-week course designed to teach students core competencies of social work and evidence-based interventions that they put into practice by working with a virtual client. The client is played by a trained actor and is provided a scripted framework by USC faculty. He seeks out help for relationship problems at home that may in part be caused by mental health issues. In the original script, his relationship problems are exacerbated by living on the opposite schedule of his wife. This summer, the script will feature modifications with the couple experiencing relationship problems while living together in quarantine.

Infographic explaining benefits of the adapted Virtual Field Practicum.

The changes are necessary to preserve the authenticity of the experience, said Morris, who serves as the lead instructor of the course and helped introduce the changes. Real-world situations, like a pandemic, affect the trajectory of a client’s progress and treatment, and it’s important for aspiring social workers to practice how they would handle it.

“Regression is really a natural thing that may happen, even for people who consider themselves to be, from a mental health perspective, quite well,” Morris said.

Events such as a pandemic, a man-made or natural disaster, or a terrorist attack can spur uncertainty, fear, sadness, anger and grief. This can lead to a host of challenges including major depressive disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder, anxiety disorders or relapse, especially if the client has preexisting mental health conditions.

“People are suffering in so many ways that being able to provide resources to clients is going to be paramount,” Morris said. “We will need to be sharp in our case management skills to access the newest and latest support.”

The VFP is sharpening those skills for students. The course provides them training on how to engage with clients to conduct needs assessments and challenges them to connect their clients with services, even when barriers like a pandemic exist. It also prepares them to engage clients through the telehealth modality. For Morris, this aspect of the program sets students up to be successful in the future as telehealth increases access to mental health care for people who have never had a provider.

“I think that this situation will begin to significantly change how people use virtual support,” she said, “and helping professionals will be the unsung heroes of this situation, supporting people as a result of this for years to come.”

Strategies to Push Forward in the Face of Stagnation or Regression

The challenges that the virtual client experiences reflect the way many people feel not only in this moment but also in other challenging circumstances they encounter throughout their lives: the sense that making progress toward goals seems impossible and, in fact, the gains they have worked toward are slipping away. The MSW@USC program asked Morris to share her tips on how to help individuals overcome this sense of stagnation and the natural regression that can occur.

Tips for Individuals Who Are Struggling

Recognize that it’s OK to not be OK

Allow a space and time to feel the feelings that you’re experiencing, whether that’s sadness, anger, fear, anxiety or grief. This is a normal part of this process, and denying yourself the opportunity to feel what you feel and to express those feelings can be detrimental to you.

Be flexible and adaptable

The process toward achieving goals may look a little different and require making modifications. It’s OK to reset expectations and adapt goals during this time.

Employ coping skills

Think about what you can do with the resources you have and how you can modify any interventions you already had in place to achieve your goals.  

Find time to reflect and be still

Reassess what progress looks like and give yourself grace. Progress might not look exactly the way you had anticipated, and it may not even be healthy to push yourself to make significant strides at the moment.  

Utilize support

Learn how to manage isolation and figure out ways to extend yourself to gain more support. Helping professionals and family or friends can be important sources of strength.

Tips for Social Workers on Working with Clients

Create space to talk

Allow clients to explore their thoughts, feelings and behaviors. These conversations may focus on symptoms such as grief, sadness, anger and fear. This can also be an opportunity for revelations and deeper insight for clients who may be experiencing positive feelings as a result of this situation.

Help clients reframe the experience

Encourage clients to explore this situation and break potentially negative thinking patterns or cognitive distortions about what’s going on in their lives. 

Connect them with alternative resources

Morris said that her hallmark as a social worker is knowing how to provide case management and clinical support to clients facing significant challenges in their personal and professional lives. This can include connecting them to telehealth or a variety of alternative resources and treatments.

Encourage clients to connect to a space of gratitude

Help clients celebrate the small victories and major accomplishments. People should still recognize birthdays, graduations, anniversaries and promotions.

Utilize new interventions

Mindfulness practice, meditation, exercise or calling upon spirituality are just some of the interventions people are gravitating toward, and social workers can explore these with clients.

Tips for Friends and Family on Supporting Loved Ones

Look for signs and symptoms of distress

It may be hard to detect given the circumstances, but pay attention to whether people are surfacing and checking in. Are they engaged in poor hygiene or sleeping habits? Are they displaying hypervigilance? Are old symptoms resurfacing? These signs can present as red flags if they have a history of mental health issues.

Do not judge their behavior

Many people have found that this is not one of the times that they are 100% their best selves. Therefore, we need to be careful about how we approach our loved ones. People may retreat even more if they feel judged, reducing their desire to want to access support.

Be available to support them

Teleconferencing is a good way to physically see someone and recognize the state they’re in. But you can also give somebody a call and listen for cues like the inflection or tone of somebody’s voice. Even written letters can give people a sense of comfort.

Explore the resources that are available

There are numerous resources available for people who have a history of mental health issues. The National Institute of Mental Health and the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration have a variety of resources to support loved ones who are experiencing a tough time.

Ask what they need

It’s not uncommon to make assumptions about what you think somebody may need, but asking them what they need to feel supported and encouraged during this time is important. They may have a preference on how they want to manage consumption of media content or how often people check in on them. 

Reassure them

Reassure your loved ones that they’re not always going to be in this moment. But if you see symptoms that do persist, encourage them to engage in some form of treatment.

“We’re all in this together,” Morris said. “And if we’re taking good care of ourselves in these emotionally distressing times, that will only help us be prepared for what’s to come.”

Citation for this content: The MSW@USC, the online Master of Social Work program at the University of Southern California.