Counselor, researcher, educator

When the effects of COVID-19 infiltrated her community, the impact on Denise’s work was immediate.

Engaged in a multifaceted career as both an outpatient clinician for CHD’s behavioral health services in West Springfield and as an instructor at Westfield State University, Denise had her work cut out for her to quickly transition both her counseling and teaching careers to a virtual setting.

While facing the initial challenges of adjusting to telehealth and remote learning head on, Denise worked to ensure she could continue support for those she serves and those she teaches while also grappling with the difficult and overwhelming feelings of the pandemic herself. In doing so, she recognized the effects of the pandemic as a collective trauma, an experience she shared with those she served, and one that simultaneously ignited one of her other passions—research.

“With COVID-19 there’s a looming uncertainty on all levels,” Denise said. “Trauma tends to challenge our fundamental assumptions about life and our security and our safety, and that’s exactly what COVID has done for all of us as a society.”

“With COVID-19 there’s a looming uncertainty on all levels. Trauma tends to challenge our fundamental assumptions about life and our security and our safety, and that’s exactly what COVID has done for all of us as a society. ”

Denise Hughes
Outpatient Behavioral Health Clinician


Continuing her essential support to those she serves through telehealth, Denise tapped into these experiences, as well as her own independent interests, to inform her work on a research team with Liberty University studying the psychological implications of the pandemic on both individuals and society as a whole. With this team, which mostly comprises Liberty University professors, Denise and her colleagues are examining an array of factors associated with the pandemic, including both personal and collective trauma, and more.

“It’s unique for us counselors because it’s also a shared experience we’re having with our clients,” Denise said. “There’s a universality in counseling that occurs when we know we’re not alone, and it helps us get through really hard times. The research that I’ve done shows that when you have collective trauma and you’re sharing in the realities that your clients are experiencing, counselors can empathize on an even deeper level.”

Another aspect of Denise’s research focuses on the experience of loss amid the pandemic. While there are obvious losses associated with COVID-19, such as that of certain freedoms (travel, large gatherings, etc.), a job, health, or even the death of a friend or loved one, there’s also ambiguous loss that many are experiencing that go beyond the more obvious. Examples of ambiguous loss include the loss of things like a graduation ceremony, a milestone birthday celebration or anniversary, high school prom or other events.

“Many people are afraid or embarrassed—or even feel guilty—to talk about this kind of loss. It’s often minimized, but it’s a very real loss,” Denise explained. “Quite often there’s no closure, and the lack of closure that people would get from some of these events or from more obvious loss like sudden deaths, can really complicate the grief people are experiencing. It’s important for us to recognize this ambiguous loss as clinicians, and help people name those losses and grieve those losses. Milestones and the opportunity for closure are both important pieces of one’s development, and we can’t minimize that in people’s lives.”

In addition to the effects of COVID-19, Denise also actively researches the psychological impacts of betrayal trauma, which is a big passion of hers and also helps influence her continual effort to grow and broaden her knowledge base to better support those she serves.

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