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Interview with psychotherapist psychologist Vania Sessa: pandemic and youth mental health

We spend our whole life in our mind, it is a duty to make it a welcoming place

By Fabiola Graziosi, Alessia Amorosini

Fabiola and I met Doctor Vania Sessa through a video call. Although separated by a screen, she immediately manages to infuse us with a feeling of calm and tranquility, that vibration that one hopes to find in the figure of a psychotherapist. Professional deformation? In part, yes, but is evident a good dose of empathy and humanity that goes beyond the profession and is proper to her person.

We are at ease, we proceed with asking the questions for the interview drawn up a few days before, to find ourselves then, towards the end, to go freewheeling, intrigued by the topic.

Because the pandemic has affected everyone, but there is a tendency to discuss the health and economic emergency and much less of the inconvenience regarding mental health.

This interview sees as protagonists those who have often been forgotten: young people.

 
 
 
 
 
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How has the pandemic affected young people mentally?

Young people are going through a very delicate phase of their development determined by a transition from dependence on the family unit to autonomy. This is a phase of release that is achieved precisely through confrontation with the peer group in which a presumed or at least greater autonomy is experienced than that which can be exercised at home.

With the pandemic and its social withdrawal, those aspects of contact, comparison, experimentation, companionship, exploration, which are an integral part of the growth of an adolescent and a young adult, have disappeared.

Even if in some cases the withdrawal from relationships has been experienced as even facilitating, we must not forget the dysfunctional risk that these forms of loneliness can take.

The effects of the pandemic therefore have entered a period of development in which dysfunctional behaviors (such as eating disorders, affective / sexual disorders, substance addiction, anxiety disorders, mood, cuts, social withdrawal etc.) can emerge...managed in time can take root in adult life.

Those who had family, personal, relational or creative resources before the pandemic certainly fared better in terms of adaptation than others more disadvantaged.

Do young people have a more open approach to the topic of psychotherapy than in the past? Or does the mental health taboo persist? Is there still shame in admitting to go to a specialist?

The approach is more open to the topic because there is more and more talk on mental health already in schools both for the presence of a psychological listening desk and for the implementation of projects on affection, bullying, cyberbullying, LGBTQI+ issues.

The embarrassment or even the taboo of mental health in adolescence can still be present where there is fear of being considered different from the peer group, as it can be traced back to non-acceptance by one's family and cultural environment, or to personal aspects of greater fragility that require a consent from the context.

On the other hand, young people after the age of 18-20 seem to me in general more motivated and free to choose, especially if they have friends who have had this experience or a family environment that favors autonomy and self-development.

What path would you recommend for post-pandemic rehabilitation of adolescents?

A path that takes into account a psychophysical approach that takes into account the importance of mind-body unity. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), health is “a state of total physical, mental and social well-being” and not simply “the absence of disease or infirmity”.

It is important that young people be given the opportunity to express their emotional experiences, both to help them clarify the physiological confusion of sensations and emotions in them, and to manage any states induced by the pandemic

In this sense, a path that includes physical activity, contact with nature and the resumption of live social relationships is very important to reactivate the exploratory system of young people through which autonomy and creativity develop.

How can the school support recovery?

The school is an excellent place for socialization, contact and comparison between peers. The teachers in this I can do an excellent job to develop the comparison and support the young people in this difficult recovery. Even if the teachers, compatibly with their training, certainly cannot replace the psychologists but (even with their support) they can be excellent observers and in this they act as an intermediary with the families reporting any inconvenience.

How much have the effects of the pandemic affected the phenomenon of school dropout?

From a couple of private researches (IPSOS and Comunità di Sant'Egidio), the results of which are to be taken with caution, it seems that a year and a half after the pandemic there has been 27% of early school leaving at a national level with peaks of 40% in some areas of the south. Thus a rift was created between Serie A and Serie B schools, between center and suburbs and between north and south.

For example, the ability of teachers to be computerized as well as the difficulty of some families to adhere to distance learning have affected this: we think of those who could not afford to provide a tool to connect, those who had numerous children, or little space in home, to those who were foreigners or with little education and found themselves giving lessons to their children without having the tools.

It is estimated that about 200,000 students have dropped out of schools since 2020.

However, let us not forget the impact of that unclear early school leaving where children appear to go to school but do not attend lessons or have difficulty learning.

 
 
 
 
 
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In addition to psychotherapy, what do you recommend to young people to alleviate the effects of the pandemic? What do you advise against?

I always recommend the expression of emotional experiences and to do so consider the possibility of contacting reference adults or your friends. To do physical activity, open up to contact with nature and social relationships to cultivate emotional and relational skills and creativity. I do not recommend generalizations, each person is unique, with his own family, social and cultural context, the cases must therefore be evaluated individually.

 
 
 
 
 
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Is there enough talk of mental health in Italy?

It is talked about but not enough. People during the pandemic understood a lot about the importance of psychology but at the political level it does not seem that enough is still being done.

Only with the DPCM of 2017 was psychology and psychotherapy introduced in the LEA (the Essential Levels of Assistance which are activities, services and health services that the National Health System (SSN) ensures to citizens, thanks to the use of financial resources public) and since that time a series of reforms have been developing.

For example, we are talking about the figure of the Basic Psychologist to work alongside the General Practitioner or the Free Choice Pediatrician and very recently the figure of the psychologist in the continuity of assistance (i.e. in the Medical Guard) has been introduced in some regions, such as Lazio .

In France, for example, a package of sessions was offered to young people (children and adolescents) to manage the psychological effects of the pandemic. While in Italy the bonus at the moment was conceived only for the scooter.

Will the younger generations have permanent damage caused by Covid-19?

I hope not, I don't like to think of permanent damage but of difficulties that have been accentuated. Covid-19 has not created new psychological effects but has exasperated what was already in a nutshell in people. In essence, it went to lean on what was already there.

Like any traumatic event, the pandemic brought with it risk factors and at the same time offered the possibility of reorganizing one's life through the development of resilience (the possibility of changing by increasing one's inner strength) and empowerment (self-efficacy).

Is psychotherapy accessible to everyone? Or is it too burdensome for those on a low income?

For those with a low income in the private sector it is too onerous while in the public sector the offer is still scarce and rarefied.

Suffice it to say that during the emergency of the first lockdown we took action among colleagues and associations to offer free support to the population, at a time when everyone, even us professionals, was involved in the impact of the event.

I think that a society that cares about the well-being of its citizens cannot be based on volunteering and emergencies but can be more solidly structured on the territory. After all, it is from the quality of the local health services that the level of development of a society is understood.

How to choose the perfect psychotherapist and how to understand if what you are consulting is not?

There is no perfect psychotherapist, but the one that's right for you. In general, you understand that you are in the right place if something makes you feel comfortable and able to open up, despite the fear of feeling judged.

It is primarily a meeting between two people, and even in this case the professional must like "the bond" or not.

Many celebrities are exposing themselves on the subject of mental health (from Kendall Jenner to Harry and Meghan). Are their public interventions a good step towards normalization or are we facing a new trend?

It seems to me a very good step towards normalization.

Fortunately, Prince Harry or the well-known influencer Chiara Ferragni took care of overcoming embarrassment and shame to spread the theme of the importance of psychotherapy and their experience with the EMDR (Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing) technique used to rework traumatic situations. People do not normally read scientific magazines to get information but magazines and social media, and for this reason their dissemination work seems important and appreciable to me.

After the bad period of pandemic that we have experienced and the long relapse that we will find ourselves in

I hope that taking care of well-being in our societies can take an ever wider space. And psychotherapy can substantially improve people's quality of life.

 
 
 
 
 
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How long does a psychotherapy course generally last?

It is very subjective, it depends on what you want to achieve, what psychological condition you start from and what availability you have towards a path of awareness. If you want a consultation it is a matter of a few meetings, if you are looking for support for a specific situation in life it can last a few months, if you want to rework something more important than your personality on average we are talking about a 2-3 year path . Then there are those who continue the path for longer because they find it fruitful to have a confrontation that lasts longer to achieve changes in their existence.

Would you also recommend this path to those who have not experienced trauma or have no specific needs?

Basically, those who come to therapy say unanimously that they would recommend it to everyone.

It is still true, however, that one cannot undertake a path of self-discovery without motivation, whatever it may be, whether it is only one of self-discovery or adaptation in some area of ​​one's life.

How do you understand that you have reached the end of the path?

When the time has come, the end of a path is perceived and in the best of situations is agreed between the therapist and the person. This end can happen both when the desired objectives have been achieved and when the work together has not brought its fruits.