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.  

Social Research on Plagues

The journal’s update of 1988’s “In Time of Plague” examines the human history of pandemics and what it means for the current moment

“After decades of dividing our time between apocalyptic fears of nuclear holocaust and private fears of personal ruin, we now face a threat that is profoundly social, requiring a public, community response. Most of us until recently have assumed, perhaps without thinking, that the number of life-threatening infectious diseases was finite, soon to be cured and prevented by medical science…. Now it appears that this idea—that we stand outside our own history, that we, unlike our forebears, are immune to widespread medical disasters—is very doubtful.” 

This description feels very poignant in the midst of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. Yet these are the words Arien Mack used to introduce the Fall 1988 issue of Social Research, which addressed the HIV/AIDS crisis. Called “In Time of Plague,” the special issue followed the journal’s first-ever public conference, “In Time of Plague: The History and Social Consequences of Lethal Epidemic Disease.” Now, more than 30 years later, Social Research is publishing a new issue with the same title this summer — on COVID-19.

NSSR’s Flagship Journal

Social Research has been a part of The New School for Social Research since its beginning,” Mack says. Founded as an international quarterly in 1934, one year after The New School’s first president created the University in Exile as a refuge for scholars forced to flee Hitler’s Europe, Social Research aimed to create a public voice for the growing university. The flagship NSSR journal now operates in partnership with the school’s Center for Public Scholarship (CPS), founded and directed by Mack, which is dedicated to promoting “free inquiry and public discussion, bringing the best scholarship in and outside of the academy to bear on the critical and contested issues of our times.”

Arien Mack, Alfred and Monette Marrow Professor of Psychology, became editor of Social Research in 1970. Under her leadership, Social Research pivoted to thematic issues, and from 1988 onward paired some of them with large public conferences that explore current, pressing social issues in their historical contexts. Past issues have looked at such complex concepts as loyalty, fairness, and unknowability, as well as more focused subjects like the future of Cuba and transitions to and then from democracy. As Mack said in a 2020 Public Seminar interview with Jim Miller, Professor of Politics and Liberal Studies and Director of the Creative Publishing and Critical Journalism program, Had I been in any other university, I would have been [only an experimental] psychologist. I would have published, probably more academic research. But I would not have had the kind of extraordinary run of intellectual fun that [editing] Social Research has offered me.”

“We held our first funded conference at a moment where there was an enormous amount of hysteria around the HIV-AIDS crisis,” Mack says of the program, whose proceedings were published in the 1988 “In Time of the Plague” issue. Her intention in organizing the conference was to examine the epidemic in light of the long human history of plagues, with the goal of fostering open dialogue among scholars and scientists, combating misinformation around AIDS, and offering a more effective and nuanced public response. 

The Right Time to Republish

“Pandemics and plagues have been with us since the beginning of time,” Mack continues. “There are things we have learned and things we have ignored. It occurred to us that this was a great moment to republish this issue and invite authors, some who contributed to the first issue and some new contributors, to comment on the new pandemic.” 

Cara Schlesinger, Managing Editor of Social Research, underscores this point. “One of the important takeaways from this issue,” she says, “is that there were lessons that were learned during the AIDS crisis and lessons that were forgotten… and when we forget history, we risk repeating it. Almost every event we [at Social Research] have done has addressed that idea in some way and tried to bring the past to bear on the present. Unfortunately, this time the past we are reminded of is very recent. Despite all of the powers and pressures working against that memory, maybe this time we will do a little better at remembering.”

The COVID-19 edition of In Time of Plague is divided into two sections. The new essays that comprise the first section navigate the moral dilemmas, inequalities, and misinformation that shadow the COVID-19 pandemic, drawing comparisons to the AIDS crisis. The second section republishes the complete collection of original papers. Contributors of both the original and new material were drawn from across disciplines.

Charles Rosenberg, Emeritus Professor of the History of Science at Harvard University, wrote a paper in 1988 on the definition of disease as well as a new piece on shaping a pandemic narrative. Willam Foege, former executive director of the Carter Center and famed epidemiologist, originally published “Plagues: Perceptions of Risk and Social Responses” and has now contributed an essay entitled “Plague Revisited.” New contributors include Teresa Ghilarducci, NSSR’s Schwartz Professor of Economics and Policy Analysis and director of the Schwartz Center for Economic Policy Analysis, with “When Economists Take a Back Seat to Virologists”; William Hirst, NSSR’s Malcolm B. Smith Professor of Psychology, on how the pandemic will be remembered; Mariano Aguirre, advisor to the Human Rights Institute, on the connections between inequality and the impacts of COVID-19; and Mary T. Bassett, former commissioner of health for New York City, who explores how “epidemics track along the fissures of our society, exacting the highest toll among the marginalized, discriminated, and excluded.”

Join a Webinar

The Center for Public Scholarship will also be holding a two-part public webinar series to launch the new edition of In Time of Plague. See more information and register here.

The first panel, “Inequalities and Plague,” will be held Wednesday, August 5, 12:30-2:00 p.m. EDT. Panelists include Ghilarducci, Aguirre, and Bassett, as well as Ahmed Bawa, Chief Executive Officer of Universities South Africa. 

The second panel, “Comparing Plagues: AIDS and COVID-19,” will be held Wednesday,  August 12, 12:30-2:00 p.m. EDT and will be moderated by Ron Bayer, elected member of the Institute of Medicine of the U.S. National Academy of Sciences. Panelists include Foege; Ruth Macklin, Distinguished University Professor Emerita of the Albert Einstein College of Medicine; Gerald Oppenheimer, Professor of Clinical Sociomedical Sciences at Columbia University; and David A. J. Richards, Edwin D. Webb Professor of Law at New York University. 

Since its first issue, Social Research has aimed to preserve the founding ideals of The New School for Social Research and to make intellectual inquiry around social and political issues more accessible for the New York community and beyond. In the introduction of this new issue, Mack writes, “It is my hope that by reissuing our 1988 issue, with new comments by experts on how the current COVID-19 pandemic resembles and differs from the AIDS epidemic, we will once again help our readers better understand what is happening now and what we might expect.” 


Alexa Mauzy-Lewis is a Creative Publishing and Critical Journalism MA student. She is a writer, editor, and the student advisor for CPCJ with her cat, Goat. Read more of her work at www.alexamauzylewis.xyz