Presidential Column

Finding a Silver Lining During a Global Pandemic

By Elizabeth A. Yeater, Ph.D.


When I wrote my first Presidential Column for The Clinical Psychologist, I had no idea that my second entry would come during a global pandemic (this probably goes without saying!). These clearly are exceptionally difficult times for all of us – I have days when I think: “I got this!” and other days when I feel demoralized, sad, and scared for our future. Yet, even in my darkest moments, I realize that I have a plethora of resources at my disposal. I am a tenured professor, my husband is a VA psychologist, my children attend an excellent elementary school that is providing online schooling, my family has top-notch health insurance, and we do not come from a marginalized population that faces significant health disparities. We are uncomfortable and grieving for our pre-pandemic life, but we will survive. Importantly, and as you realize, this is not the case for many people, including, I am sure, many of the clients that we treat in our practices. I am reminded of an article by Dr. George Bonnano who found, among other noteworthy findings, that those individuals in New York City who experienced a decline in income as a result of the terrorist attack on 9-11 were significantly less likely to be resilient (i.e. more likely to have posttraumatic stress disorder symptoms, higher depression symptoms, and greater substance use). Given the devastating economic effects of COVID-19 on many families, I have no doubt that we will dealing with the “psychological fall out” in our therapy rooms for years to come. If there is a silver lining here, it is that we know how to sit with and treat those who are suffering psychologically.

Brian Stelter, a journalist for CNN, reflected my feelings eloquently in a recent post on the network’s website. He spoke of “hitting a wall” and being overwhelmed by feelings of grief for the people who have died from COVID-19, for senior citizens who are scared and missing their well-deserved golden moments, and for children (both young and older) who are missing school and other key developmental milestones (e.g., graduations). I too share those feelings and hit my own wall last week, when the gravity of this situation finally hit home for me on a deeper level. I am sure many of you have had similar experiences in the past weeks. Although our circumstances are vastly different, we are having a collective experience, and I suspect that the psychological aspects of this experience, including disruptions in feelings of safety, control, and power, are felt to greater or less degree by everyone.

In my best moments, I believe that this time will make us better human beings; more connected to our communities, less connected to our devices, more empathic to others who are struggling and have less than we do, and more intent on using psychology, and the principles that we know are supported by science, to make the world a better place for all of us in general, and in particular, for those individuals who are historically and currently disenfranchised by our current sociopolitical system. COVID-19 has disproportionally affected these marginalized groups of people and, as a result, it has cast a blinding light on the health disparities and inequities that we know exist in our current system. We must do more to reduce these disparities – our future depends on it. In the “anti-science” environment that we find ourselves in, we need to remember what psychology can do to improve society. Lilienfeld (2012) noted that many academics and people in the community do not believe that psychology has made a valuable contribution to society and believe it to be less valuable than those contributions made by the hard sciences. Yet he reminds us in that paper that psychology has made significant contributions to society, such as identifying operant training procedures, constructing and validating tests that measure a variety of psychological constructs, and recognizing the ways in which memory is fallible, which has influenced decisions that are made within our legal system. These are no small feats. We have much to offer, during this time, and the time to come when this passes.

Perhaps as a result of COVID-19, we find our deeper humanity. On Easter, I delivered a ham, a frittata (my husband’s specialty), a chocolate bunny, and toilet paper (yes, toilet paper!) to a close friend’s house, because she was sad that we would not be spending the holiday together. I felt my mood lift considerably afterward, a clear sign that by giving during this difficult time, we also are helping ourselves. Recently, the Associate Dean for Faculty Development at my university reached out to me to see how I was doing given I have three young children at home and offering ways to support me, if I needed assistance. This was a small act, but I felt substantially better as a result, especially given the pressure I feel to be present for my children and continue to be productive in my academic roles. These experiences have led me to believe that we can find little ways to reach out to others that have a real psychological and emotional impact.

Reflecting on my personal life, I retrieve easily an example of how we might find our humanity in suffering, as well as how hope might ameliorate unnecessary suffering. When my eldest daughter was four years old, she was diagnosed with kidney cancer. My husband and I were devastated by the news – we were looking at a very long period of time in which we would not know whether our daughter would survive. That specter lived with us through seven months of chemotherapy and five years of follow-up visits to ensure that the cancer did not return. Then, one day, she walked out of our local children’s hospital as a cancer survivor. In the darkest moment of my life, I experienced great kindness and comfort from many people. While that did not take away my grief or fear, I did feel less alone in my suffering. My daughter’s tumor also had the worst genetic marker possible – children with the same tumor were more likely to relapse and die. As a scientist, I wanted data and exact probabilities, and as a mom, I wanted assurances that she was not going to die. I recall her oncologist telling me one day that I needed to have hope for my daughter. My knee jerk reaction was to exclaim, “What does hope have to do with anything?” Upon reflection, I realized he was right – I needed to be strong for her and behave “as if” everything was going to be okay. I found some peace in comporting myself this way, and I suspect such a stance will be helpful for all of us during these unprecedented times. We must have hope, and we must use our science to help those who are marginalized and disenfranchised – I believe this is part of our duty as clinical psychologists.

I realize that this is not a typical entry into The Clinical Psychologist, yet it felt odd to me, given our current circumstances, for it to be so. This has been therapeutic for me to write. Thank you for listening. Please take care, be kind to yourself and others, and stay safe and healthy!

Elizabeth

References

Bonanno, G. A., Galea, S., Bucciarelli, A., & Vlahov, D. (2007). What predicts psychological resilience after disaster? The role of demographics, resources, and life stress. Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, 75, 671-682.

Lilienfeld, S. O. (2012). Public skepticism of psychology: Why many people perceive the study of human behavior as unscientific. American Psychologist, 67, 111-129.