NSSR Welcomes Melany Rivera Maldonado to the Psychology Department

“By listening as someone puts their story into language, you foster a space where recreating and transforming a narrative becomes possible,” Melany Rivera Maldonado, NSSR’s new Assistant Professor of Psychology and director of the Safran Center for Psychological Services, tells me. Before she was a therapist and a professor, Rivera Maldonado was a journalist, and the transformative power of stories and of narrative space has never been lost on her.

A Procession from Journalism to Psychology

Writing has been a large part of Rivera Maldonado’s life. It first came in the form of poetry, under the mentorship of Puerto Rican writers Mayra Santos Febres, Mairym Cruz Bernal, and Mayda Colón. Later, as a communication student, she researched social issues in journalism. That work taught her how to interview people — what to ask, and how to approach certain subjects.

After creating profiles for community and non-profit stakeholders for Puerto Rico Solidario, a section of El Nuevo Dia newspaper, Rivera Maldonado got more involved in psychological work and decided to pursue her PhD in clinical psychology at the University of Puerto Rico. There, as a first-generation doctoral student, she learned how to ask questions from multiple angles to access pieces of life that people may not know are affecting them. In the therapy room, her background in writing helps her find metaphors, create connections, and foster opportunities for those who often feel unheard to find their voice.

After, Rivera Maldonado moved to New Jersey to complete her internship year at the YCS Institute for Infant and Preschool Mental Health, then worked as an Assistant Professor at Felician University teaching both counseling and ethics courses. Since then, she has been involved in direct services, leadership, and advocacy efforts related to immigrant children and youth. As part of her program development experience, she created a program for Latin American immigrant youth to process the transition, stressors, and mourning experiences that come with their journey to the U.S. Another program under her leadership for children of immigrants and their parents fostered a space for connection and understanding between and within the families. Rivera Maldonado’s focus on migrant communities allows her to provide them a space to find their voices as they navigate a convoluted immigration process and heal at personal and communal levels. Rivera Maldonado calls this focusing on developing participatory interventions that come from the community and go to the community.

Rivera Maldonado also tries to bring the particularly Latin American psychology of liberation to her work. “Psychology as a practice, inside and outside the therapy room, is political,” she tells me, and requires looking at the interconnection of both social and individual factors. She described how the pandemic has brought to the surface inequalities already present — medical health services are usually harder to access overall for communities of color and disadvantaged communities, and therapy continues to be unaffordable for many, especially with high out-of-network prices.

Teaching with an Integrated View of Psychology

Now, Rivera Maldonado’s work has brought her to NSSR, where she tells me that her social justice-oriented sensibilities fit in seamlessly with the school’s ethos. She and her Psychology faculty colleagues study and teach their students how to transfer their academic knowledge to their one-on-one work with patients. “You have to understand the sociopolitical and historical climate that surrounds the communities we work with” to establish a critical lens for understanding patients, she emphasizes. At the same time, each doctoral student in their first year engages in a clinical experience, for which Rivera Maldonado shared that it’s important to “be able to also support students on the front line and promote their personal development.”

In tandem with her teaching, Rivera Maldonado is the Director of the Safran Center for Psychological Services, which provides tailored foundational training in psychotherapy and psychodiagnostic assessment to NSSR Clinical Psychology PhD students through close supervision of practical application of learned skills. It also offers low-fee psychological services to New School students and the surrounding community, and collaborates with The New School’s Counseling Center to provide psychological assessments for New School students. With their sliding scale rates, the Center serves people who otherwise wouldn’t necessarily be able to access therapeutic services. The Center is a training clinic born out of past New School professor Jeremy Safran’s and other faculty members’ interest in pursuing their research while fostering student’s development as psychologists. It’s also a place where questions about the purpose of therapy, and whether it’s meeting its goals, can be addressed in real-time — a place where the therapeutic process can be monitored through a process of research, reflection, and program evaluation.

As part of her work leading the Center and admitting patients, Rivera Maldonado makes considerations about which communities are underserved, following principles of equity, diversity, and inclusion. Due to the increased need for services in the area, the Center is currently at capacity. Rivera Maldonado says she is looking forward to “the possibility of generating projects and identifying funding opportunities that will strengthen the Center’s infrastructure to continue to expand our services.”

If you or somebody you know would like to inquire about accessing services, you can contact the Safran Center by emailing ​​safrancenter@newschool.edu or calling 212.229.570. The clinic is accepting patients for the spring 2022 semester.

 

Bessie Jane Rubinstein is a writer and a student in the Creative Publishing and Critical Journalism MA program. They live in Brooklyn, are rotating between 3+ books, and are always taking recommendations for more.

NSSR Welcomes Sam Winer to the Psychology Department

This fall, The New School for Social Research welcomes Sam Winer as a new Associate Professor of Psychology. A clinical psychologist, Winer uses novel methods and theory to attempt to better understand, identify, and treat individuals experiencing anhedonia, depression, and anxiety. 

Winer is a self-admitted “longtime admirer of The New School” and its historical and current emphasis on social justice, which is also a focus in his own research, teaching, and service to his discipline. In the NSSR Psychology department in particular, Winer admires the emphasis on “depth hypotheses ⁠— what are some of the motivating factors for why people behave as they do, what are some of the repetitive dynamics that can motivate people to act in certain ways. That’s where a lot of my work, which examines the interface of cognitive and motivational explanations of depression, fits in.” He also appreciates the department’s “strong background in empirical research” and “open and inclusive consideration of a wide variety of philosophical ideas.” 

Winer’s recent publications similarly display a range of approaches to the study and treatment of depression and anxiety. He became interested in these conditions as a graduate student at the University of Illinois, Chicago and continued that research as an assistant then associate professor at Mississippi State University (MSU). There, he and the students in his Emotional Processes and Experimental Psychopathology Lab focused on finding cognitive and affective predictors of distress and dysfunction. As Principal Investigator, he has received more than $1 million in grants for this research from the National Institute for Mental Health to investigate Reward Devaluation Theory — research that led the Association for Psychological Science to name him a 2018 APS Rising Star.

Understanding Reward Devaluation Theory

Reward Devaluation Theory (RDT) explores why and how some depressed individuals come to avoid potentially hopeful and positive information. Research into depression has “focused primarily on negative things that you might be threatened by or have difficulty disengaging from,” says Winer. “There’s been less of an emphasis on how positive information is processed. It’s been known that depressed individuals may not have the same normative bias toward positive information” or rewards as people who are not depressed. 

What RDT and Winer’s reanalyses of data show is that “it’s not just a lack of ‘normal’ value or valuation of positivity, however. [Some depressed people] seem to avoid potential positivity. Think of it like The Shawshank Redemption — it’s not that I’ve given up on hope; hope is a dangerous thing,” explains Winer. Many societal factors could feed these biases toward positivity, and Winer says that almost infinite considerations of culture and context can inform why persons come to develop these biases.

At NSSR, Winer is launching a lab with NSSR graduate students as well as New School undergraduates to continue to examine RDT and the cognitive and emotional mechanisms that can help explain how and why some individuals develop these types of biases toward positivity and hopefulness. He’s also looking into treatment choice — why individuals do or do not go into treatment for anxiety and depression — and a more general, endemic fear of positivity and hopefulness throughout the COVID-19 pandemic. “People are trying to decide when to trust and hope again as we continue to resume normal life after the worst of the pandemic. I’m excited to see how understanding of reward devaluation will help inform how we all can fully let positivity back into our lives again.”

One of the methodological approaches Winer sees value in for RDT research is network analysis, which can help show how symptoms of psychopathology connect to one another. “It might be that people have an essence inside of them that is depression,” he explains. “But it might also be the case that the complex connectivity of symptoms over time forms a feedback loop that is the depression for that individual person.” Winer gives an example of a hypothetical person with depression who stops sleeping regularly due to a loss in that person’s life. That lack of sleep makes them not enjoy things anymore, which leads them to be sad, which perpetuates the lack of sleep. But even when the loss goes away, the feedback loop keeps functioning, and that person remains depressed. In particular, Winer will be using temporal network analysis — looking at how networks organize and change over time — to look at clinical and experimental datasets to see how they connect and “pulse.”

Outside of the lab, Winer is excited to step into teaching at both the undergraduate and graduate levels. An award-winning professor several times over at MSU, Winer is teaching Systems of Psychotherapy, an undergraduate course at Eugene Lang College for Liberal Arts, in Fall 2021. In Spring 2022, he’ll be teaching a core Clinical Theory and Technique: Cognitive Behavioral Therapy course to graduate students at NSSR and Emotions to undergraduates at Lang.

“Teaching is, to a large extent, why I got into this business,” Winer closes. “I love being able to teach both at a school for social research and also in a liberal arts college, and to be able to engage with critical theory and critical considerations of psychology in a progressive atmosphere.”

A Look Back at 30+ Years of the Center for Public Scholarship

In 1988, Arien Mack had been editor of Social Research journal for almost 20 years when it occurred to her that organizing conferences would be one way to cultivate a wider audience, and a larger public voice, for the journal and The New School at large. 

The topic of the first conference presented itself readily. Mack sets the scene for me in a Zoom discussion: In 1988, thousands of people were dying from AIDS, the U.S. government was not acting, and there was much public hysteria stoked by misinformation and prejudice. A conference situating the epidemic in social history seemed like “a calmer and more effective response to the problem,” says Mack. So Social Research presented a conference and attendant journal issue called “In Time of Plague: The History and Social Consequences of Lethal Epidemic Disease.”

Mack describes the conference as “very successful,” and it inaugurated a deeply involved series of conferences that then coalesced into the Center for Public Scholarship (CPS). Mack, Professor Emerita of Psychology and Director of the New University in Exile Consortium says this move followed the spirit of Alvin Johnson, co-founder and first president of The New School, who launched Social Research to provide the university with a public voice. CPS raised the money for the conference series with a mix of “work and luck,” as Mack tells it, and covered “a huge range of wonderful, fascinating subjects,” in her words. CPS also became one of several interdisciplinary centers and institutes at The New School for Social Research. 

Various 'Social Research' covers.

Now, after more than three decades of successful conferences and public lectures and events, CPS is wrapping up its programming. 

Reflecting on standout conferences, Mack cited 2007’s “Punishment: The U.S. Record,” which invited professors of law, religion, and penal and social theory, as well as gathered writings from incarcerated individuals, to speak about the devastation wrought by mass incarceration in America.

In 2012, Mack established a branch of CPS called Public Voices, which sought to bring in singular, leading voices to discuss and think through the most urgent problems of the present. Mack fondly remembers a Public Voices event, one that “really mattered,” called “The Pros and Cons of US Universities Operating Campuses and Centers in Authoritarian Countries,” which discussed the extent to which universities with campuses in authoritarian countries are aiding and abetting, or complicit with, the oppressive regime.

CPS’s conference series attracted artists and academics alike. Mack says that the view of the Center was “very much to the outside, facing the world, trying to address these subjects” in “non technical, non academic,” but intellectual, terms. Poet John Hollander spoke at multiple conferences, including “Home, A Place in the World” in 1990, which approached the making and meaning of home amidst housing and migration crises, and one of Mack’s personal favorites, “In the Company of Animals” in 1995, which discussed animal rights and protections, our connection to them, their role in literature and religion, and more. A CPS conference on the artist’s necessary freedom of expression attracted artists such as Paul Chan, Ricardo Dominguez, Ai Weiwei, Shirin Neshat, and Chaw Ei Thein, and critics such as Holland Cotter. The 2019 conference, “Loyalty and Betrayal” coincided with The New School’s centennial celebration and featured a keynote address from Andrew McCabe, former Deputy Director of the FBI.

In 2020, CPS reissued the “In Time of Plague,” newly edited with analysis from experts on a wide range of subjects including, but not limited to, parallels between COVID-19 and the AIDS epidemic. Read a past Research Matters story on the issue, and listen to Mack discuss the issue below.

The penultimate CPS event, a panel on the future of higher education that was part of the investiture of New School President Dwight A. McBride, took place on October 6, 2021. While Mack planned the final CPS conference and latest Social Research issue well before the pandemic, “it couldn’t have been more timely,” says Mack. The subject? Loneliness. Read more about the event and register here.

Poster for CPS Fall 2021 Conference on Loneliness

As CPS wraps up, Mack will have more time to focus on the New University in Exile Consortium, an initiative she launched in 2018 to shelter, connect, and support scholars whose political views threaten their livelihoods, or their lives. She put it bluntly: The choice to close CPS was difficult because her heart was in it, “but all things being equal and life getting shorter and shorter,” raising money for the Consortium — they’re currently trying to bring at-risk Afghan artists to The New School — is an urgent priority. 

 

Bessie Jane Rubinstein is a writer and a student in the Creative Publishing and Critical Journalism MA program. They live in Brooklyn, are rotating between 3+ books, and are always taking recommendations for more.

Azeemah Kola Receives APA Mental Health and Substance Abuse Services Doctoral Fellowship

Azeemah Kola, a Clinical Psychology PhD candidate, has received a 2021-22 Mental Health and Substance Abuse Services Doctoral Fellowship, part of the Minority Fellowship Program of the American Psychological Association (APA). The fellowship will help support her as she completes her doctoral studies, and connect her to a broad network of other psychologists and psychologists-in-training who are specifically focused on working with racial and ethnic minorities. 

Kola is broadly interested in how certain groups, particularly those that are marginalized, are perceived in society.

“Thus far, I have been interested in looking at this through the principle of magical contagion, which is the idea that the essence of a person or thing can be transferred through physical contact with an object,” she says. “In my MA thesis, I found that individuals were less likely to want to come into contact with objects that had been previously handled by obese individuals, suggesting that obesity is in fact wrongly viewed as communicable.” 

Her dissertation, tentatively titled “Magical Contagion and Psychiatric Disorder,” uses magical contagion to look at the ways in which individuals treat those with psychiatric disorders. “Specifically, I am interested in understanding whether, and why, mental illness in particular may be seen as communicable, whether consciously or unconsciously, and whether this differs depending on the type of psychiatric disorder,” Kola shares. Her dissertation advisor is McWelling Todman, Professor of Clinical Practice.

Understanding exactly what conditions underlie stigma around mental health has a number of potential policy and practical applications, especially where attitudes toward mental health intersect with other issues, e.g. providing safe housing and support for unhoused populations, or dealing with mass trauma from catastrophic events like the COVID-19 pandemic. In many cases, mental health stigma and attitudes towards the individual may involve compounding prejudice, where biases and irrational beliefs about mental health collide with prejudices about race, ethnicity, legal status, chronic health conditions, or poverty. 

Kola’s clinical interests center on the experiences of people of color. “I am interested in how established therapeutic models may apply (or not apply) cross-culturally, and how therapy that focuses on specific events or experiences may need to respond to or be aware of greater structural and systemic experiences of racism and inequality,” she says. This year, as an extern in the PTSD Clinic at the Brooklyn VA Medical Center, she is starting and co-facilitating a Race-Based Stress and Trauma psychotherapy group with her supervisor, also a woman of color. “We hope [this] will provide a space for veterans of color to acknowledge and process the often pervasive and repeated traumas of racism,” she shares.

“I felt incredibly fortunate [to receive this APA fellowship], not least because I felt empowered by the fellowship committee believing in my research, clinical focus, and its importance. I am also deeply grateful to the Psychology department at The New School and my mentors, in particular Dr. Todman, Dr. [Richelle] Allen, and Dr. [Daniel] Gaztambide, for their unwavering and beyond generous support of me and my application,” Kola says.

In addition to her studies, research, and externship, Kola writes a blog for Psychology Today and is a member of the APA’s Task Force on Climate Change, which she joined to help address the disproportionate impact of climate change on already vulnerable and marginalized groups.

Follow Azeemah Kola on Twitter

National Science Foundation Awards Jeremy Ginges for Research on Religion and Human Conflict

The National Science Foundation recently awarded Jeremy Ginges, Associate Professor of Psychology, a major grant to support a multiyear research project entitledReligion and Human Conflict.”

The award, totaling $646,716, will support Ginges and the members of his Social and Political Psychology Lab — including New School for Social Research Psychology graduate students Anne Lehner and Starlett Hartley, and postdoctoral fellow Mikey Pasek — as they develop, according to their abstract, a “theoretical framework that will allow us to understand, predict and model how religious belief influences intergroup relations, sometimes encouraging cooperation and tolerance, and at other times promoting conflict.” A supplemental award of $47,700 will allow Ginges to involve six undergraduate students from underrepresented groups from Eugene Lang College of Liberal Arts in the research project as well.

Throughout his career, Ginges has focused his research on two main questions: How do humans decide whether to cooperate across cultural boundaries, and why do people sacrifice everything (their own lives, the lives of loved ones) for an abstract cause like a nation or a god? He and his lab members have investigated these questions in places around the world that oscillate between “extreme conflict and surprising cooperation,” such as Israel-Palestine, Lebanon, Fiji, and Indonesia.

“The mainstream view was that beliefs in moralizing gods [gods that police behavior], and different divergent beliefs in gods….spread because they help groups become tightly knit cooperative entities that could outcompete other groups. It’s another way of saying they cause intergroup conflict,” explains Ginges. “We’ve been doing research showing that that’s actually not the case.”

In a recent article led by Julia Smith, an NSSR graduate and current doctoral candidate at the University of Michigan, Ginges and his co-investigators show that, contrary to those mainstream views, belief in moralizing gods actually discourages dehumanization of other ethnoreligious groups. His lab is currently preparing a paper on an experiment in which participants were given a set amount of money and encouraged to share it with strangers. Participants initially gave more money to members of their religious group, but when prompted to think about their god, they ended up giving more money overall, regardless of who they were interacting with.

The NSF grant will help Ginges and his lab members better understand exactly when and how belief in moralizing gods makes intergroup relationships better, and when and why it sometimes makes them worse. In the case of the money-giving experiment, if a norm is to share money, thinking about god will enhance that generosity. However, if a norm is to fight a different ethnoreligious group, then thinking about god might instead increase that aggression.

In addition to better understanding how religious beliefs may have shaped, and continue to shape, cooperation between people living in diverse, complex societies, Ginges hopes that his research may inform public policy on a range of issues.

“There are implications for this research in how we understand issues around multiculturalism, particularly religious diversity and immigration,” he explains. “And also, understanding more deeply when religious belief can be used, or is used, to promote prosociality can help organizations aimed at encouraging cooperation.”

Given improving pandemic conditions, Ginges is hopeful that he and his lab members can begin running filed experiments in this multiyear project in Fall 2021. Research and fieldwork will take place with participants in the U.S. as well as Israel-Palestine and Fiji.