Student-Led Symposium Explores Psychology and the Pandemic

On December 4, near the end of a year defined by COVID-19, MA and PhD students from the Psychology department at The New School for Social Research gathered on Zoom to present their research on the global mental health landscape amidst the global pandemic. 

The symposium was organized by Julia Superka, a PhD candidate in Clinical Psychology, and Olivia Cadwell a PhD candidate in Cognitive, Social, and Developmental Psychology. As members of the Trauma & Global Mental Health Lab, both have been working on pandemic-related mental health issues for months. But they didn’t realize that so many of their peers were as well.

NSSR’s Psychology department is a collaborative space. “I have always thought of this department as a community who uses tools, theories, and methods from psychological science as a way to inform and respond to our most critical challenges,” says Adam Brown, director of the Trauma & Global Mental Health Lab and Associate Professor of Psychology. Students conducting research throughout the department’s 16 labs have opportunities to discuss their work and its implications for broad-scale problems. Amid a shift to remote learning, those interactions have changed. “The chats that happen before class and collaboration that sparks in the hallways are much harder to organically build,” Superka says. Brown approached Superka and Cadwell with the idea for a student-led symposium to bring those students together.

In November, Cadwell and Superka circulated flyers inviting Psychology students with research at any stage related to COVID-19 to present their work. They received 12 abstracts with extraordinary breadth, and then coordinated across different labs, countries, and time zones to make the virtual symposium a reality. Topics included “data about clinical symptom severity and possible predictive markers for developing psychopathology during the pandemic…different ways technology was impacting the therapeutic process and being developed to reach as many people having difficulty coping as possible,” and “the implications of COVID from a global lens, including international research specifically in Turkey, India and China,” Superka recounts.

Research in Action at The Safran Center

Brown opened the virtual space by celebrating the adaptability of the students, so many of whom made changes in their research to address the urgent mental health needs the pandemic caused or exacerbated.

“One of the most remarkable things about being at NSSR is being surrounded by peers who have pivoted and adapted their research so quickly to this crisis,” Superka echoed in her opening remarks.

Olivia Cadwell, Safran Center for Psychological Services director Richelle Allen, and Julia Superka discuss overlaps across different research projects.

While national studies have looked at the impact of the pandemic on mental health generally, they have not closely analyzed symptoms for people already receiving treatment when the stay-at-home order began. The first project, presented by Clinical Psychology PhD student Hally Wolhander from the Psychotherapy work group from Safran Center for Psychological Services (directed by Richelle Allen, Assistant Professor of Psychology), focused on this often-overlooked demographic and measured patients’ symptom-severity during the pandemic. The group’s research showed that Safran Center patients with strong therapeutic alliance — the cooperative, working relationship — with their providers seemed to remain on track for reducing the severity of their mental health symptoms. Wolhander added that the group was still curious about the impact of teletherapy (versus in-person therapy) itself.

The Safran Center gave students the opportunity to observe the effects of COVID-19 and teletherapy on mental health services.

A group led by Psychology MA student Leslie O’Brien took up that very question in their presentation on “The Effect of the Transition to Teletherapy on Therapeutic Alliance during COVID-19.” O’Brien began, “Previous literature has indicated that psychologists have raised concerns about the impact of virtual conferencing on the psychotherapy process and therapeutic alliance.” To this group’s surprise, the patients and therapists they surveyed developed a high degree of therapeutic alliance, equal to previous years. The Center did increase the number of appointments patients receive in response to the pandemic, so the research might imply that the additional appointments had some success in preventing symptom deterioration–additional research could show whether that’s the case.

Another Safran Center work group focused on how the shift to teletherapy affected PhD students completing their training at the Center. Many student therapists initially opposed the switch to telehealth, Wolhander explained, because they were concerned that they would receive less broadly applicable training. But by June, students largely reported a neutral or positive experience, and most reported that they felt they had developed new skills.

The Psychological Life of the Pandemic

NSSR’s Psychology labs have also turned their attention to the relationship between mental states, emotions, and navigating these famously unprecedented times.

Clinical Psychology PhD student Emily Weiss from the Psychopathology Lab (directed by McWelling Todman, Professor of Clinical Practice) presented on the implications of a familiar emotional state during the pandemic — boredom. Different people, she explained, have different propensities toward boredom generally. But people who have felt increased boredom since stay-at-home orders began don’t necessarily have a higher boredom propensity. The differences, while subtle, could have a significant impact on distress. While boredom proneness and state boredom both are associated with higher rates of depression, for example, people with lower boredom proneness and higher state-boredom seem to have higher rates of hope and optimism for the future. Likewise, higher boredom-proneness is associated with higher COVID-19 infection, but not higher concern about the virus.

Heleen E. Raes, an MA student, presented research, also housed in the Psychopathology Lab, on the impact of pandemic boredom on substance use, hypothesizing that people more susceptible to boredom may be more likely to use alcohol and drugs.

MA student Ali Revill’s group within the Safran Center found that extraverted patients and patients with lower emotional dysregulation — inability of a person to control or regulate their emotional responses — have experienced higher mental illness symptom severity.

A group based in the Trauma & Global Mental Health Lab developed a self-efficacy app and presented their findings.

MA student Olivia Friedman presented on an app designed in the Trauma & Global Mental Health Lab to build self-efficacy, a critical tool in a moment where feelings of helplessness run rampant, and Cadwell presented research on the influx of politically-fueled COVID-19 conspiracy theories.

Superka presented on behalf of her research group of NSSR and Suffolk University students, which looked at the risk of moral injury — an injury to an individual’s moral conscience and values resulting from an act of perceived moral transgression — for people navigating social distancing and other transmission-related guidelines. Actions that feel like moral failures, like forgetting to wear a mask, can lead to feelings of moral injury, which has long-term negative mental health outcomes. “The pain experienced by individuals who suffer from moral injuries confronts us with the fact that we are, at the core, empathic and moral beings, for whom living in a just world may be just important as living in a safe world,” Superka concluded.

International Research

NSSR Psychology students come from dozens of countries around the world, and many have taken an international approach to their research. Cognitive, Social, and Development Psychology PhD student Meymuna Topcu, presenting research conducted within the Cognitive Psychology Lab (directed by William Hirst, Malcolm B. Smith Professor of Psychology), compared perceptions and projections of COVID-19 between the United States and China, including individuals’ perceptions of personal and governmental efficacy, and their estimated death and infection numbers.

Busra Yaman researched stress and resilience among Turkish and American graduate students during the pandemic.

MA student Busra Yaman, from the Trauma & Global Mental Health Lab, focused on “Perceived Stress, Achievement Motivation, and Resilience Among Domestic and International Graduate Students,” comparing Turkish international students to American students. While she found no significant differences in stress levels between the groups, she did find that international students did not lose motivation despite their high stress levels, while domestic students did. Likewise, international students with higher motivation had higher levels of resilience, while domestic students did not.

A group within the Center for Attachment Research looked at loneliness and mental health among women in rural India.

MA student Zishan Jiwani turned the symposium’s attention to India, which has had the second highest COVID-19 infection rates and an extremely strict lockdown. Little research has looked at the virus and lockdowns’ impacts on rural parts of the country. Jiwani presented on behalf of a group within the Center for Attachment Research (co-directed by Howard Steele, Professor and Co-Chair of Psychology and Miriam Steele, Professor of Psychology), on “Understanding the Mental Health Impact of Fear of the Coronavirus amongst Low-Income Women in Rural India,” where women have been cut off from their communal spaces. The group analyzed data from surveys given to women in their homes in the Bahraich District in Northeast India, asking questions about fear of the virus and perceived loneliness. Research found that increased loneliness, increased fear, and increased mental health challenges are all highly associated with each other. Jiwani suggested that these results could influence public health decisions — the epidemic of loneliness requires care and attention, too.

Fostering a Collaborative Space

Around 50 people attended the event, including faculty and students from across the psychology department and throughout the university. By the time presentations came to a close, the collaborative spirit that characterizes NSSR was palpable — students with overlapping research swapped information in the chat, and some of the presenters had already begun answering questions before the formal Q&A began.

The Q&A included many suggestions for furthering research, like including job-loss data in boredom analysis. Adam Brown also proposed a question about the surprising results of the research on telehealth and therapeutic alliance, and Howard Steele sparked a conversation about therapeutic alliance and cultural crises.

Cadwell and Superka hope to recreate this digital community space in the form of future symposiums that highlight ongoing research from within the Psychology department and beyond.

“We saw this [symposium] as a great opportunity for people to come together and talk about the research that we’re doing. It’s really incredible how much everyone has adapted. There is other research being done throughout NSSR broadly…so we are really interested in organizing a recap symposium of the ongoing crisis points we experienced in 2020, including the economy, protests and police brutality, the election cycle, and other global catastrophes,” Cadwell says.

“After we moved to remote learning, I was proud to see how quickly our students stepped up and adapted their research to study the complex psychological impacts of COVID-19. The symposium underscored the breadth of research being carried out across our labs and the sophistication in which our students are doing this work,” Adam Brown reflects. “This end-of the-semester student-led event was a wonderful opportunity for them to share their cutting-edge findings with one another and to create that much needed sense of community that we all miss.”   


Cailin Potami is a writer, an editor, and a student in the Creative Publishing and Critical Journalism MA program. They live in Queens with their cats, Linguine and Tortellini.