Susan Zinn of Westside Counseling Center: “Loneliness Hurts Us More Than We Thought”

Loneliness Hurts Us More Than We Thought. While we celebrate independence and self-sufficiency in American culture, we also learned during the COVID-19 pandemic that biological isolation and loneliness have a massive impact on our mental health and wellness, especially for our youth. According to new Harvard research, 61% percent of the 950 respondents in a […]

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Loneliness Hurts Us More Than We Thought. While we celebrate independence and self-sufficiency in American culture, we also learned during the COVID-19 pandemic that biological isolation and loneliness have a massive impact on our mental health and wellness, especially for our youth. According to new Harvard research, 61% percent of the 950 respondents in a national survey reported feeling high levels of loneliness were between 18–25 years old. I am sure many people assumed young people would feel the least lonely during this time because of their social media and technological proficiency. However, I spoke to many school populations, educating students on increasing their mental health and wellness during the pandemic. And I spoke with my patients. Teens and young adults were incredibly lonely. This speaks volumes about the importance of human connection and the need to feel loved and supported by a community, particularly for those with developing brains.


With the success of the vaccines, we are beginning to see the light at the end of the tunnel of this difficult period in our history. But before we jump back into the routine of the normal life that we lived in 2019, it would be a shame not to pause to reflect on what we have learned during this time. The social isolation caused by the pandemic really was an opportunity for a collective pause, and a global self-assessment about who we really are, and what we really want in life. As a part of this series called “5 Things I Learned From The Social Isolation of the COVID19 Pandemic”, I had the pleasure to interviewSusan Zinn.

Susan Zinn, LPCC, LMHC, NCC, is a licensed psychotherapist, certified trauma and eating disorder specialist, and the founder of Westside Counseling Center in Santa Monica, California. Susan speaks nationally to academic, healthcare, government, and business audiences on building strategies and environments that support mental wellness. She is an author, a mom to two teenagers, and the recipient of President Obama’s Volunteer Service Award. Susan is a regular media contributor and can be found in the pages of Forbes Magazine, The New York Post, Science Times, L.A. Parent Magazine, and a guest host on iHeartRadio a guest host, BBC talk radio, and other media outlets.


Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series Susan! Our readers like to get an idea of who you are and where you came from. Can you tell us a bit about your background? Where do you come from? What are the life experiences that most shaped your current self?

I grew up in rural New Jersey but was fortunate enough to go to high school at an International Baccalaureate Friend’s boarding school called George School. It was there where, besides learning the lyrics to early ’90s hip-hop like Rob Base and DJ E-Z Rock, I discovered a love for world cultures. Going to school with hundreds of international students exposed me to food, art, languages, cultures, philosophies, and religions from around the world. My desire to be a global citizen later led me to work on three continents and travel to over 40 countries. I also learned the core Quaker values of peace, integrity, community, equality, and stewardship at George School, a moral foundation that guided me towards a life of service. George School’s mission statement is “let their lives speak.” I strive to live that every day because I believe service is how our lives “speak” to who we are as humans in the world.

Are you currently working from home? If so, what has been the biggest adjustment from your previous workplace? Can you please share a story or example?

Yes, as a psychotherapist and certified trauma therapist, it was a big adjustment during this past year trying to conduct telehealth from home, especially since I was also homeschooling two teenagers. The therapy office has always been a safe place where people can focus on themselves without distractions. Suddenly, the entire mental health community had to switch to telehealth. It was a significant scramble. We have been figuring out how to integrate telehealth and figure out HIPAA compliance and privacy issues for patients for a decade. Then, within weeks, we had to adjust and embrace the changes. We see there are many benefits to telehealth. I don’t see it slowing down. Some people miss the couch because they value their privacy. But many people had a good laugh because bathrooms became the new therapy office, and toilet paper became the new tissue box.

The most challenging adjustment was the amount of support people needed. The pandemic’s taken a significant toll on our mental health and wellness that may take years to undo. I worked six to seven days a week all year, and it wasn’t enough. It was the most challenging year of my career, supporting people through loss and mounting mental health concerns. Some days, I saw 12 patients a day and tried my best not to burn myself out.

What do you miss most about your pre-COVID lifestyle?

I miss connecting with people. I missed seeing my friends and family, but I missed my community too. The everyday exchanges, chatting with a neighbor or my barista, remind me of our humanism. I deeply miss those moments of interacting with people, the unexpected magical moments you have with another human. It was also challenging to be physically disconnected from people. My teenagers got sick of me stressing the importance of physical contact for our mental wellness and sneaking hugs whenever I could.

The pandemic was a time for collective self-reflection. What social changes would you like to see due to the COVID pandemic?

I went to Japan several years ago, where I was amazed by how little waste there is. There’s less garbage, less food waste, less overconsumption in general. I would like to see us continue to reduce waste in this country. I recently read a study in Science Direct on food waste that was conducted during COVID. The analysis found that food planning and management contributed to waste reduction over the past year. We have gotten used to needing less and stretching meals by being better prepared. Having built this muscle over the last year, I hope we maintain our waste reduction. People seem to feel happier with less, and it positively impacts the environment.

What, if anything, do you think are the unexpected positives of the COVID response? We’d love to hear some stories or examples.

COVID’s unexpected positive, the de-stigmatizing of mental health, is deeply personal for me. We have a long way to go, but before the COVID pandemic, having mental health issues or getting support was viewed as a weakness in many cultures and communities. People were afraid to talk about their mental health. Now, people seem to accept that we need to take care of our mental health the same way we do our physical health. I worry about the cost and the long-term impact of the pandemic on our youth’s mental health. Unfortunately, this mental health destigmatization results from the mounting global need for mental health and wellness services.

In the health and mental health professions, burnout is a real issue. This past year has proven that technology and telehealth can be tremendous tools for patient care. This technology can also help support working parents with work-life balance by creating more efficient use for follow-up care. Additionally, we may see an increase in medical professional career interests if there are more possibilities of work-life balance for future clinicians and those who want to have families.

Another positive impact of the pandemic has been a return to more substantial values. People seem to be embracing faith communities and practices more. They seem to have more gratitude for what they have and also, most significantly, seem kinder. I have seen so many people cherishing their relationships, helping one another, assisting neighbors, or working at food banks. I’ve seen trainers and nutritionists donating their time and expertise online. I’ve benefited from neuroscientist Dr. Andrew Huberman’s podcast, which helps me provide patients with free accessible information about neurobiology. And I get recipes and wellness information from chefs like Serena Poon, who offered daily Instagram talks on simple, yummy ways to make meals for my teenagers. Isaac Boots, a fitness trainer, raised hundreds of thousands of dollars for No Kid Hungry by donating free workout classes. It truly has filled my heart, and I hope this trend towards kindness and caring about our communities continues.

Aside from what we said above, what has been the source of your greatest pain, discomfort, or suffering during this time? How did you cope with it?

Every parent found trying to homeschool kids incredibly challenging. Yet, my great pain was seeing my 16-year-old daughter, Charley, struggle with such extreme migraines that I had to withdraw her from her sophomore year of high school. I felt so helpless. I knew the migraines were caused by the disproportionate amount of time she had to be online for school. She is a serious student and would spend eight hours on her computer in classes and then finish her homework at midnight most days. Charley tried blue light glasses, numerous tests, and an unsuccessful medication trial.

When I finally withdrew her from school and she was off the computer, she was migraine-free within a week. This year has been an incredible learning experience for her. She learned that her health and mental wellness have to be prioritized over everything else in her life, and she learned life skills that make her pre-college ready. I am very proud of her volunteer commitment at Venice Family Clinic, where she helped distribute 10 thousand meals a week to their underserved community. All of this was a great parenting moment because I had to let go of how things should be. Even though she will not graduate with her class, it is so much more important to have a healthy and happy teenager. Charley also says the benefit now is that she gets the opportunity to meet more friends volunteering too!

How did you deal with the tedium of being locked up indefinitely during the pandemic? Can you share with us a few things you have done to keep your mood up?

I take my mental wellness very seriously and believe it is essential to schedule joy into my day every day. It gives me something to look forward to, especially when things are challenging, and anticipating something positive in my day helps regulate my nervous system. It is something I plan and genuinely look forward to enjoying. One of my regularly scheduled joyful moments was going to the beach to watch the sunrise or sunset with my new COVID puppy, Phoebe, as often as possible. Yes, like so many, I got a puppy during this time. It was really hard because I was working so much but watching her run around and play in the water was a moment of reprieve and a great way to start my day.

I also love to laugh. I have a serious job, and people often expect me to be extremely serious and are surprised to find me quite the opposite. I love comedy, jokes, and humor in general. I recently started a podcast called “Laughter is the Best Medicine” with Dr. Matt Iseman, a doctor turned stand-up comic. We will launch it this summer. In the podcast, we talk to so many interesting people about their adversities and life challenges and how they got on the other side. Plus, we are interviewing medical and mental health professionals. This has been a great way to get my “funny out,” but our podcast’s real goal is to offer free inspiring and educational information around mental health and wellness. I am deeply passionate about it and genuinely hope it helps people right now; if nothing else, hopefully, it will give them a little laugh, which can be so therapeutic.

Okay, wonderful. Here is the main question of our interview. What are your “5 Things I Learned From The Social Isolation of the COVID19 Pandemic? (Please share a story or example for each.)

This is a tough question since there are so many things I feel like I learned during social isolation. However, I would say:

  1. Loneliness Hurts Us More Than We Thought. While we celebrate independence and self-sufficiency in American culture, we also learned during the COVID-19 pandemic that biological isolation and loneliness have a massive impact on our mental health and wellness, especially for our youth. According to new Harvard research, 61% percent of the 950 respondents in a national survey reported feeling high levels of loneliness were between18–25 years old.] I am sure many people assumed young people would feel the least lonely during this time because of their social media and technological proficiency. However, I spoke to many school populations, educating students on increasing their mental health and wellness during the pandemic. And I spoke with my patients. Teens and young adults were incredibly lonely. This speaks volumes about the importance of human connection and the need to feel loved and supported by a community, particularly for those with developing brains. We need more public information to remove the stigma of loneliness and alleviate the shame that makes people hide their true feelings so that connecting with others is even harder.
  2. Our Mental Health Matters. The Center for Disease Control and Prevention recently reported that over 60% of young people are experiencing significant levels of anxiety and depression. Our youth were in a mental health crisis before COVID, and this made it worse. This time has been particularly hard on younger adults who recently transitioned away from their families because they now lack essential connections. Young adults are in a stage of development where they make critical decisions about their careers and relationships. The isolation of the pandemic added a new level of overwhelm by depriving them of community and peer support and adding higher levels of stress. At the start of the pandemic, many people worried about the aging population. However, life experience seemed to make older adults more resilient than younger people, who experienced serious downward spirals. Our society and education system must boost awareness about the importance of taking care of our mental health and helping our youth learn how to take care of their mental health. During COVID19, a lack of these skills left many struggling to weather this challenge. We need to work as a society to take the shame out of needing mental health support! We are in crisis.
  3. The Power of Nature. One of the silver linings of the pandemic is it got more people outside in nature, enjoying the national parks and wide-open spaces more. I think many of us took our natural surroundings for granted — the beauty of a tree or a butterfly flying in the garden. I got so much joy, and such a boost to my mental wellness, from watching a bird’s nest outside my home office window. Eight different birds laid eggs there over the year, and I was delighted to listen to the babies and watch them practice their flight skills. It seems small, but the joy I received from hearing the babies peeping throughout my day was tremendous. Additionally, watching the magic of so many sunrises and sunsets has delivered a whole different level of healing for me this year. Enjoying the spray of color across the sky is universal. As humans, we feel good being in nature, and it isn’t something I take for granted. I hope people continue to appreciate and care for nature as our society opens up more.
  4. Asking For Support Is A Strength. You have to learn that it is okay to ask for help when you need it. Like many mental health and health practitioners, I struggled with burnout during this pandemic. Helpers and frontline workers are needed so much that sometimes we stop taking care of ourselves. My colleagues and the medical community regularly discussed emotional exhaustion and feeling overwhelmed. Not knowing how long we would have to work at this pace added worries about our kids’ health and wellness, and it all took its toll. However, during this year, I learned how to ask for help. It isn’t always easy for me, but it is important to know that you can get help from your family, friends, coworkers, supervisor, faculty, advisors, and career coaches when you need it. They are your support system, especially in times of crisis.
  5. We Are Learning New Skills. The pandemic forced me to develop skills I rarely used and to adapt to new demands. I learned to handle not having enough time to help everyone and to work collaboratively with colleagues to help more people. People say hindsight is 20/20, which was so accurate last year. I gained a greater perspective on my career path. I evaluated how I could best serve my community, began writing a book about post-traumatic growth, and started a podcast to educate more people about mental health. These creative endeavors are teaching me how to share my voice and help others in some small way. Through it all, I learned more about myself and how I can live up to my high school mission and let my life speak — working to be a better mom, friend, daughter, community member, and professional every day.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you during the pandemic?

“Six-year-olds laugh an average of 300 times a day. Adults only laugh 15–100 times a day. Be six again.”- Unknown

Our lives are so hard and challenging right now, and there are so many people suffering. We have to remember to find joyful times in our lives. Please find a way to laugh even when you don’t feel like it. I promise you that it may make you cry, but you will also enjoy the joy of laughing. If you can find something hilarious that gives you a good belly laugh, that can change your brain chemistry, boost your mood, and make you feel better. Remember to be six sometimes and laugh.

How can our readers further follow your work online?

Your readers can find more mental health and wellness tips and information on social media on Instagram @SusanZinnTherapy, Twitter at SusanZinnLPCC, or my website is www.susanzinntherapy.com.


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