Global Mental Health: Adam Brown on Psychology That Crosses Borders

Emergency room doctors at the University Hospital of Bern were stumped.

Lately, more patients were reporting headaches, stomach and back pain that, despite extensive testing, did not show any clear physical root. That this uptick occurred mostly among one patient population — recent refugees from Iraq, Syria, Afghanistan, and Eritrea — made them wonder if stress and other similar factors might be at play. So they invited Associate Professor of Psychology Adam Brown to help them dig a little deeper.

As a Fulbright Specialist, Brown collaborated with the Bern doctors, the Swiss Department of Health, NGOs, and refugee communities over two summers to research the situation, identify gaps in mental health care, and plan and launch a new intervention. Now, refugees awaiting treatment at University Hospital emergency room complete a brief, carefully-worded, and culturally-sensitive mental health assessment via iPad.

It’s an important first step. Brown has since returned to help the program scale and expand to Zurich, Basel, Geneva, and other Swiss cities. New funding from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation means he’ll be returning for four more summers.

Investigating and developing treatments for populations routinely exposed to and impacted by stress and trauma has become the focus of Brown’s work as a clinical psychologist. He’s traveled across the globe to work refugees and migrants, human rights advocates, emergency workers, combat veterans, and more; before heading back to Bern this year, he wrapped up a large-scale mental health survey of 17,000 United Nations staff members. His findings have informed the organization’s ambitious new Workplace Mental Health and Well-Being Strategy.

From Local to Global

Surprisingly, Brown’s path to a career in global mental health started on a much smaller scale. Graduating college with a degree in environmental studies and political science, he worked for a Bay Area nonprofit, interviewing neighborhood residents to find out how their environmental concerns and access to green space affected their wellbeing.

“It was through those interviews that I became really interested in the psychology of how they were dealing with stress, of how they were coping with day-to-day experiences,” he says. “And that just opened up a set of curiosities and interests in the mind.”

That realization led Brown from California to New York in 2002 — specifically to the Psychology MA program at The New School for Social Research (NSSR), where he fit in well with the many other students pursuing psychology as a second field or career.

Just one year after 9/11, New York City was still finding a new sense of normal. Brown remembers that time as an emotional turning point for both psychologists and patients in the city. “[After the attacks] there was a more careful and systematic approach to measure and study how people were coping with stress and trauma on a fairly large scale. And there was this whole tough masculine culture that, prior to that, might have placed barriers [for men] to talking about mental health issues. Suddenly, they were considering reaching out and connecting with a therapist.”

Brown teamed up with a New School alumna at Cornell Medical School to study utility workers who had cleaned up debris at Ground Zero. At NSSR, he co-founded and wrote for the New School Psychology Bulletin. As his interests in memory and trauma grew, he planned conferences together with with sociologists and anthropologists in the interdisciplinary Memory Studies Network. And in a cognitive psychology class with Malcolm B. Smith Professor of Psychology William Hirst, he formally began to study Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).

New Research at The New School

In the early 2000s, most PTSD researchers believed that traumatic memories would resurface and cause new waves of stress and impairment in the present. Brown has taken those understandings one step further. “As more research came out suggesting that our ability to imagine the future depends so much on our ability to remember the past, I began to wonder if we would see similar alterations and maladaptive processes in how people with PTSD imagine the future. And that is what we’re finding…. We also believe this is partially what makes it hard to recover from those sorts of events.”

But memories aren’t always accurate and memory itself isn’t fixed; in fact, it’s quite malleable, much like the brain itself. That quality drives Brown to ask bigger questions about PTSD treatment as well as prevention. “We’ve found that if we have people recall memories in which they were able to overcome or successfully manage a stressful event, it seems to actually increase people’s sense of self-efficacy. And then when we give them tests they’re much more effective at problem solving, emotional regulation, they view the future more optimistically…. As we begin to better characterize risk factors, we might be able to do things prior to exposure to events that might help to mitigate the negative impacts of stress.”

That could mean moving more post-crisis treatment plans from the hands of psychologists to the people themselves. “We’re thinking about psychological first aid,” Brown plans. “What are some of the things we might want to put in place to help reduce stress or to identify things that might require urgent care? We need to think about how we can train community leaders and other people to be the drivers of mental health care in those communities.” Such program promise to be more efficient, more cost-effective, and more personal, all helping reduce barriers to mental health care.

Brown is looking forward to bringing students from NSSR and across The New School into his work. “Most science happens in teams. The ability to work across disciplines for me is really so important,” he says. In his new Global Mental Health Lab, he’s working closely with Psychology master’s and doctoral students as well as Eugene Lang undergraduates and Parsons graduate students — some of whom will join him in Switzerland this summer. A Global Mental Health minor, currently in development, aims to help more New School students engage in the topic and apply their social science skills in fieldwork with local and international NGOs, in collaboration with the Zolberg Institute on Migration and Mobility.

Teaching at his alma mater is a fitting homecoming for a world traveler, and Brown sees his research as fitting squarely with The New School’s progressive history and mission. “Within science in general there was a feeling that if you brought politics into your work, you couldn’t do good research. We’re finally at a point now where that is being challenged and dismantled.”

Nancy Fraser Is the Newest Chevalier de la Légion d’Honneur

Nancy Fraser, Henry A. and Louise Loeb Professor of Political and Social Science, has been named a chevalier de la Légion d’honneur — a knight of the Legion of Honor of France.

This highest reward for outstanding merit, founded by Napoleon in 1802, is given to French nationals and others who have served the country or helped further its values. In Nancy’s case, as noted in her official award letter: “You develop through your many papers a reflection on the major issues facing our contemporary societies that is as philosophic as it is political. Your original feminist thought aims to understand the inequalities of gender from a triple economic, cultural and political perspective. Through your work, you wish to help change society, and to imagine a new one…. France recognizes the breadth of your work, your commitment to promoting French language and thought as well as your cooperation with French and European universities.”

During her tenure at The New School for Social Research, Nancy has developed a longstanding relationship with the French academy. She has served as Blaise Pascal International Research Chair of the École des Hautes Études en Sciences Sociales from 2008-2010, and as the International Research Chair in Social Justice at the Collège d’études mondiales of the Foundation Maison des Sciences de l’Homme from 2011-2016.

The Legion of Honor is the latest award Nancy has received this year for her work. She was also awarded the Nessim Habif World Prize, conferred at the University of Geneva on October 12, and the Award for Lifetime Contribution to Critical Scholarship from the Haven Center at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, to be conferred there on April 11, 2019.

Nancy has published dozens of books and articles on social and political theory, feminist theory, and contemporary French and German thought. Her latest work is Capitalism: A Conversation in Political Theory, co-authored with Rahel Jaeggi, in which the two leading thinkers “show how, throughout its history, various regimes of capitalism have relied on a series of institutional separations between economy and polity, production and social reproduction, and human and non-human nature, periodically readjusting the boundaries between these domains in response to crises and upheavals.”

Join Nancy this summer at the Institute for Critical Social Inquiry’s 2019 Summer Seminars, where she will be leading the Critique of Capitalism seminar.

NSSR Mourns the Loss of Professor Jeremy Safran

The entire New School community is shocked and saddened by the tragic death of Jeremy Safran, New School for Social Research psychology professor, former Department of Psychology co-chair, and an internationally renowned psychotherapist. This heartfelt tribute by Michael E. Gellert Professor of Sociology Jeffrey C. Goldfarb originally appeared in Public Seminar on May 8, 2018 and is reprinted here with permission.

This is a very sad day at The New School for Social Research and at Public Seminar. Jeremy Safran, a distinguished professor in our Psychology Department and a senior editor of Public Seminar, a dear colleague and friend to many of us, was murdered yesterday in his Brooklyn home. We are in shock, as we are trying to respond.

This morning, a community gathering was called by our dean, Will Milberg. Colleagues, administrators, and most movingly, Jeremy’s students visibly stricken with grief, tried to console each other.

An announcement was made by the co-chairs of the Psychology Department, Bill Hirst and Howard Steele (who also happens to be Jeremy’s first cousin):

“As most of you know, Jeremy Safran was brutally murdered yesterday. Jeremy’s contributions to the Department and to the field of Psychotherapy Research cannot be underestimated. He joined the New School faculty in 1993, shortly after the APA had placed the Clinical Psychology Program on probation. He quickly found himself Director of Clinical Studies and later Chair of the Department, and with characteristic energy and determination, worked not only to move the Clinical Psychology Program to full accreditation, but to make it the vibrant, respected program it is today. During this time period, he established a training facility at Beth Israel Medical Center, the low-cost New School Psychotherapy Research Program, and the Sándor Ferenczi Center. He was a brilliant mentor to many students and an inspired instructor.

Outside the New School, Jeremy’s intellectual curiosity and broadminded approach to all things psychological held him in good stead. He was an expert in Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy before he joined forces with Les Greenberg to provide the theoretical foundations for Emotion-Focused Therapy. He was also a preeminent psychotherapy researcher, studying the processes underlying rupture and repair in therapeutic alliances. He wrote or edited eight books and a large number of articles and chapters. He also developed for the APA a series of training DVDs. In recognition of his brilliant contributions, the Society for Psychotherapy Research awarded him their Distinguished Research Career Award and Division 39 of the APA honored him with the Award for Distinguished Contributions to Psychotherapy Research. He also served as President of the International Association for Relational Psychoanalysis and Psychotherapy. Jeremy’s contributions did not end with his envelope-pushing research on psychotherapy or his knack for decisive institution building. He also wrote insightfully about Buddhism and psychoanalysis and on critical approaches to Psychology. In addition to his faculty position at the New School, he was also on the faculty of New York University Postdoctoral Program in Psychotherapy and Psychoanalysis.

We want to extend our condolences to Jeremy’s wife, Jenny, and his two children, Ayla and Ellie. We will miss him.”

Jeremy appeared on Public Seminar as a public intellectual. He was an active member of our team from the very beginning. He took part in and informed our deliberations, as we launched and developed our venture in innovative publishing. He realized in his posts our goals: drawing upon his expertise, he addressed the non-expert public (including me) about “enduring problems of the human condition, responding to the pressing issues of the day.” He wrote many pieces and solicited even more from colleagues from around the world, and students close to home. He wrote one of our most popular posts, on the rise, fall and possible resurrection of psychoanalysis in the United States, “Who’s Afraid of Sigmund Freud?” I love the piece because it has been very popular and is also excellent. He critically reported on psychology’s involvement in America’s torture regime: “Psychology and Torture.” A few weeks ago he wrote “Authenticity American Style,” on “the meaning of authenticity in the era of “reality show” politics.” He combined sober professional judgment, with intellectual playfulness.

On a personal note: I knew Jeremy as a kind person, a gentle-man, also a bit forgetful, as am I. Although we were not intimate friends, we were close colleagues. I admired him for his commitments: mental health, personal wellbeing and the public good were not simply words for him. We worked together with mutual respect. I enjoyed him as a person. Last Thursday, we had our last monthly Senior Editors’ meeting for this academic year. He was late. I told my colleagues I thought this meant he wouldn’t be coming. When he arrived, I pointed this out to him. Since Public Seminar and The New School’s Publishing Initiative have moved up to their new digs, before each meeting, I received a note from Jeremy asking me to remind him where the meeting would be held. Last week, he came without asking.

An additional note from Ali Shames–Dawson, an important editor on our team:

“I am inclined just to add how much he brought dedicated students to Public Seminar — I am here because he insisted that we must speak immediately one day, my first ever Jeremy at-home phone call, and he excitedly told me of the opportunity to be an editorial fellow, back in 2015. Since then, he has solicited and supported a wealth of student writing and PS involvement, as was his way. His deep dedication to spreading his commitments, particularly to critical intellectual engagement beyond the boundaries of disciplinary psychology and in socially engaged scholarship, and involving students in meaningful projects is something I know everyone who reads this who knew him will appreciate and resonate with.”