One of the many important lessons mental health counselor Tara Allert ’16, ’18, has learned over the years at Viterbo University is the ability to roll with the punches.
“Flexibility is a key trait I learned at Viterbo, being okay with uncertainty and ambiguity,” said Allert, who lives in La Crosse. “These days things are so uncertain, and uncertainty is hard to deal with.”
Like so many people, Allert has had to be flexible over recent months after the COVID-19 pandemic gripped the country. As a counselor at Peace of Mind Counseling in La Crosse, she works with people who are coping with mental illness, many of them also dealing with substance abuse issues as well.
The risk of spreading infection meant Allert and other counselors couldn’t meet face-to-face with their clients anymore starting in mid-March. But letting patients go without the solace counseling brings them was not an option, especially during these difficult times, which can heighten anxiety, depression, and other mental health issues.
Counselors like Allert as well as other medical professionals have turned to telehealth, providing counseling and medical consultation through virtual appointments using web-based video conferencing.
Telehealth counseling offers advantages for some clients. If clients have transportation challenges, it’s much easier to get to appointments if they can just sit down at their computers. And, Allert said, studies have shown that counseling through video conferencing can be as effective as being in the same room.
“My experience is that clients are very receptive, and it usually is an effective way to go,” Allert said.
One drawback is the potential for lack of privacy if clients don’t have the space at home where they can conduct a telehealth session without being overheard or walked in on.
Also, Allert said, it can be more difficult doing remote counseling with younger clients. That difficulty was confirmed by Amanda Falkers ’11, ’15, an outpatient therapist for Mauston-based Pine Valley Integrative Services. Falkers designed the program for the company and provides counseling for a caseload of as many as three dozen children and adolescents.
Falkers normally works with her clients in their schools, but now that they are all at home, she is connecting through computers with them. Doing telehealth sessions saves Falkers a lot of travel time, but it also adds challenges in working with children.
A counselor needs to do activities and games with children to establish a trusting relationship as part of their therapy. Because she can’t be with her young clients, Falkers has to send them activities, books, and games by mail in advance of their sessions, and during those virtual sessions it takes a lot more effort to read the subtle cues.
Both Falkers and Allert said the school districts have been great about ensuring that students have internet access and devices through which they can do their counseling sessions.
Whether young or old, a lot of their clients are having a hard time these days, and that requires counselors to take that into account.
“A huge part of our role right now is to normalize that struggle and to hold space for those really heavy feelings because everybody is experiencing some of that heaviness right now,” Allert said. “Nobody is really immune to that. We want to help bring some peace and some hopefulness, and there are some ways that our situation now can be used for personal growth.”
It might seem like children might be happy to have unexpected vacation days from school, but it really can be difficult, Falkers said. For a lot of children, school is their safe space, and they miss being with their friends.
“The impact it’s having on them is very significant,” Falkers said. “That has been very difficult to watch. They’re sometimes just going back into a shell.”
Working from home has been a struggle for both Falkers and Allert, but in different ways. Falkers lives on her own, working long hours that sometimes have her losing track of time, forgetting to eat, and missing being in the company of people. “I didn’t realize how extroverted I was,” Falkers said with a laugh.
Allert, on the other hand, has a full house. She has three sons (ages 11, 7, and 9 months) with her husband, Zeb Allert, who earned a business management degree at Viterbo and now manages the Neshonoc Lakeside Camping Resort in West Salem.
Falkers and Allert, both of whom are in doctoral programs at Viterbo, both started their studies at Viterbo planning on a career other than counseling.
A native of Westby, Falkers at first was in the pre-law program. Then she volunteered at the New Horizons Shelter and Outreach Center for victims of domestic violence and changed course. “I wanted to in some way support people, and this was a way of doing it,” Falkers said.
Allert came to Viterbo after growing up in Mosinee, and she initially planned to become a nurse. But in time she was drawn to psychology and after taking some time off from college came back and completed work on a substance abuse counseling degree before going into the master’s degree program for mental health counseling.
Both Allert and Falkers credited the encouragement and insight of Viterbo professors for helping them find their calling. “They see your strengths before you even see them sometimes,” Allert said.
While the pandemic has been difficult for many to deal with, Falkers sees it as an opportunity for people to do a reassessment. It’s kind of a reset.
“I think it’s really brought us back to our basic values,” Falkers said. “What’s happened has cut out a lot of things that aren’t that important. I think what’s really important is to be kind to one another. We don’t know what each other is going through.”