On the Record with Suzanne Degges-White

DeKALB – The COVID-19 pandemic has brought about many changes in all aspects of our lives, including work, school and social lives.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, “public health actions, such as social distancing, are necessary to reduce the spread of COVID-19, but they can make us feel isolated and lonely and can increase stress and anxiety.”

Suzanne Degges-White, professor and chair of the Department of Counseling and Higher Education at Northern Illinois University’s College of Education, was recently featured in a Discover Magazine article about the importance of socialization, hugging and physical touch during the pandemic.

Degges-White spoke to MidWeek reporter Katrina Milton about counseling and steps everyone can take to improve their mental health.

Milton: What does your role entail at NIU?

Degges-White: Being the chair of the department is a role that requires that I wear a lot of hats during the course of a day: I’m in charge of the personnel and the daily operations of the department, courses and curriculum. I am required to balance the needs of our students, our faculty, and the institution itself. I also manage the budget for the department, oversee personnel processes, and advocate for my students and faculty. I act as a counselor, an administrator and try to be a problem solver.

Milton: Why did you choose a career in education?

Degges-White: In college, I majored in psychology and I wanted to be a psychiatrist when I was young. When life prevented that path, I went to grad school to become a counselor. While earning my master’s degree, I was encouraged to continue on to get my doctorate degree. With my PhD and working in academia, I could teach, conduct independent research, and still see a few clients through a private practice. Most of us who pursue a career in counseling feel driven to help other people. By teaching counselors-in-training, I’m helping other folks get the education they need to be counselors themselves. It’s a double delight because I’m not only in academia doing research, I’m also teaching others. I think that there’s no better job for me, it’s perfect.

Milton: What is the importance of counselors and what would the world be like without them?

Degges-White: The field was developed as a way to support people as they go through transitions and troubles in life. If there were no counselors, there would be no counselors in agencies, schools, foster care or hospitals, and the world would be a much more chaotic, unpredictable and unsettled place. Relationships would be a lot rockier than they already are. The focus of counselors is helping their clients grow and deal with the normal obstacles we all face in life. We help them deal with depression and anxiety and give them a space to talk about it and make it all make sense. Counselors help you live the life you want to live. They help folks create the glue that keeps their lives together.

Milton: How does the pandemic affect people differently mentally?

Degges-White: Folks that were introverts enjoyed the idea of working from home. After a few months, they missed those forced interactions where they are around others and became lonelier than they expected. Extroverts had a hard time at first, but they have bigger social groups to rely on. They transitioned from a face-to-face social life to a more electronically mediated social life. Extroverts had an easier time because their social networks were already pretty strong. It has been difficult for introverts because their social networks weren’t as large. They didn’t have the same sense of support. Their social anxiety has now increased significantly. Like anything else, you have to keep doing it and practice to be good at it, and not having as much social interaction has made introverts very anxious to go outside again because their levels of anxiety have increased.

Milton: Have you noticed that the pandemic has caused additional anxiety?

Degges-White: The unpredictability with the disease has also caused a lot of anxiety. Humans like order, we just do. Order has helped us build civilizations. We need a sense of order. And now 18 or 19 months into a very unpredictable disease, we’re now facing exhaustion, irritability and frustration with the mandates. Even though you have worn masks and received your vaccination, the delta variant is a possibility. You did everything you’re supposed to do, yet you still get sick or hospitalized. The lack of certainty is challenging for everyone.

Milton: How has counseling changed due to the pandemic?

Degges-White: Our counseling center went online March 2020, and we have been working with all of our clients via telecommunications since. I think it’s been positive. Clients have been able to reach out and get counseling wherever they’re at: their home, backyard, the park or their car. They can find a spot that’s private, and we can create a place for them to speak confidentially, where they can be vulnerable safely. We can be there for them, wherever they are, wherever they feel comfortable.

Milton: Why has social distancing been so difficult for many?

Degges-White: Humans have a need for hugging and skin contact. Skin hunger is a real thing. Right now, people are feeling tired and exhausted. Politicization of public health has done a lot of damage to people’s relationships: whether they should wear masks or receive a vaccine. It’s became a bigger issue because of political views, and it has been hard on a lot of folks. The pandemic has affected the way we shop, engage, our dating relationships, our work relationships and our families and friendships. I don’t know what area of life the pandemic hasn’t affected honestly.

Milton: What should we do if we are feeling anxious, overwhelmed and unhappy?

Degges-White: We all have to take a step back and realize what we want isn’t always what we’ll get in this world. It’s OK to have uncomfortable feelings, but it’s also important to remind ourselves that we can make choices in how we move forward. Acknowledge your feelings, but don’t let them overwhelm or paralyze you. Stay in the present moment and choose to behave in ways that will help you feel less anxious, less overwhelmed, and more content.

Milton: What if you disagree with family and friends about topics like masks and vaccinations?

Degges-White: You might ask yourself, “What can I do to fix them?” The only behavior you can control is your own. We have to find ways to negotiate different aspects. Listen where they’re coming from. Ask them, “Could you do this so our relationship could continue?” You can’t go in expecting a fight with our dukes up. If you go in with a conflict mindset, you’ll get a conflict. If you go in with resolution mindset, you’ll get a resolution.

Milton: How can we come to terms with not getting a resolution?

Degges-White: During a session of couple’s therapy, a wife told me she thinks that compromise is not a win-win, it’s a lose-lose. We can’t go in with that idea. We can’t go into relationships being toxically optimistic or persistently doom and gloom. There’s always a way for us to get a little of what we want, even if it’s not all of what we want. We won’t get everything our way. My dad used to tell me, “Suzy, you’re not the only pebble on the beach.” It was his way of saying “You won’t get your way all the time.”

Milton: Who would you recommend counseling to?

Degges-White: Counseling for folks dealing with things they feel overwhelmed with or need some space and support to work through transitions, and so on. Counseling is creating a space where you can be vulnerable, a super safe space where you get your feelings validated and can tell another person what you feel. You can discuss relationship issues, professional issues, parenting issues, whatever’s getting in your way to do what you want to do. Counseling is a sacred space where you are invited to be your most authentic self, whatever that might be, and be encouraged to do whatever it is to feel authentic in all you do in life. If you have personal issues and are feeling overwhelmed by life, try reaching out to a counselor. It’s a wonderful thing to do. If you’re anxious about things, transitions in life, counseling can help you figure out what you’re going to do next. It’s all about safety, growth and development.

Milton: Which counseling service are you involved with?

Degges-White: Our department houses the Community Counseling Training Center through NIU’s College of Education. CCTC offers the community tele-counseling services right now, and when we can, we’ll get back to face-to-face counseling, hopefully in the fall. CCTC is a safe way to begin counseling. We’re all afraid to admit we need help, but counseling should be normalized. It’s about living your very best life. We work with kids all the way up to older adults. CCTC at NIU offers counseling to community members on a sliding scale, truly making counseling available for everyone.

For more information about the Community Counseling Training Center, visit www.cedu.niu.edu/cctc.

Katrina Milton

Katrina J.E. Milton

Award-winning reporter and photographer for Shaw Media publications, including The Daily Chronicle and The MidWeek newspapers in DeKalb County, Illinois, since 2012.