Finding self-compassion during COVID-19: Q&A with Dr. Jessica Jackson

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Editor’s note: This blog post is part of an ongoing Progress Notes series featuring individuals who work in clinical psychiatry. In the following interview, third-year medical student Jessica C. Sheu interviews Dr. Jessica Jackson.

Dr. Jessica Jackson is a clinical psychologist and assistant professor at Baylor College of Medicine. She is a practitioner, scientist, and advocate whose research has a focus on culturally competent clinical practice and includes race-related stress, minority mental health, and mental health in a correctional setting.

I was fortunate to be assigned to Dr. Jackson this past summer during a Compassionate Conversation and action session, where she led a small group discussion on racism and community healing. In this interview, she highlights her path toward psychology, her role in the field, and provides advice on having self-compassion.

Q: Why did you become a psychologist?
A: I didn’t choose to be a psychologist; psychology chose me. Psychology was actually my third major in college, because I wasn’t sure what to pursue. I took a psychology course and the professor was so awesome. The course got my attention and intrigued me. I started out working with adolescents, specifically those who were court involved, and through this, I gained an understanding for how much mental health can be impacted by adverse childhood experiences.

Q: What field of psychology are you focused on?
A: All of it. I work in a hospital, and psychologists in a hospital tend to be more generalist than in other settings. I have a background in corrections, university counseling centers, primary care, and veterans’ hospitals. I work at a public general hospital, so there are no specialties, but there are psychologists who are stronger in some areas than others. Overall, we treat it all, whether it’s depression, anxiety, or addiction.

I’m also focusing on practicing cultural humility as a psychologist. With a lot of social justice and racism issues going on and with my research background on racial trauma, race-related stress, and cultural competencies, I am incorporating that into my generalist work at the hospital.

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Jessica Jackson, Ph.D.

Q: What is the role of psychologists in a mental healthcare team, including psychiatrists and social workers?
A: It depends on the setting. I like to think of psychologists as a cog in the middle of the wheel. In our training, we take psychopharmacology classes, so we know a little bit about the medications that physicians know. Regarding social work, we know a little bit about the social advocacy part and the case management part. When you bring a whole team together, the team knows a little bit of everything, so we can all make sure that things are streamlined and integrated.

Psychologists bring a more in-depth perspective for the harder and more complex cases. We spend a lot of time going into the cause of depression and not just treating the symptoms of depression. For example, I’ve recently received referrals from physicians for COVID-19 patients. These physicians believe their patients are not getting better from COVID-19, because they may feel depressed or have psychosocial issues that may negatively impact their recovery. As psychologists, we can come in and assess the situation – for example, maybe we discovered that a patient had preexisting depression prior to contracting COVID-19. Then, we can conceptualize how that is playing a role. During their stay in the hospital, we can work with them briefly with skill building for depression.

Q: In light of COVID-19 and current social issues, what are some ways you have been coping?
A: I have been coping by resting. As a psychologist, I am acutely aware of the effects that COVID-19 has had on my own mental health. We are seeing a mental health reckoning that is coming in the wake of COVID-19.

There has been a struggle for us to continue business as usual despite the fact that it is not business as usual. I’m working at a hospital where COVID-19 is treated. I am on an in-patient unit, so I can come in contact with the virus – those things can cause stress. I give myself some self-compassion when I get home because pretending that I don’t have these extra stressors doesn’t do me any good.

I have been working to intentionally carve out time to read a book, watch TV, and sometimes just literally be – even if that just means I’m sitting on my couch.

I’ve also allowed myself to grieve a little bit. It’s important to recognize there are some losses: maybe I’ve had speaking engagements that were canceled, things that I would’ve planned. I’m trying to allow myself to have that space to feel whatever I’m feeling. Journaling has been helpful. Being a support or being able to rely on friends and family for support has also been helpful.

The last thing is boundary setting. I have learned how important boundaries can be when there are blurred lines with work and home. If you’re telecommuting, the lines can get blurred. When you’re not able to be about in the world (i.e. dinners, vacations), you may find yourself working more than usual. So, I’ve been really working with setting boundaries so that I can keep my mental well-being in a good place.

Q: What advice would you give to others going through hard times?
A: Practice self-compassion. This has worked with a lot of my patients. When I forget to do something, when I get my calendar mixed up, when I forget to send an email or follow up on something – I just acknowledge to myself that I’m going through a lot right now and it’s OK to make mistakes.

I encourage self-compassion when you’re feeling frustrated or when you’ve made a mistake. The best thing that we can do for ourselves is to recognize that a lot of our lives have changed and that we are all doing the best that we can right now.

By Jessica C. Sheu, third-year medical student at Baylor College of Medicine

Additional Resources

Geriatric psychiatry and COVID-19: Interview with Dr. Kristin Jones

Social work in anti-human trafficking: Interview with Katherine Robichaux

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