Février, c’est le Mois de la psychologie
La psychologie est ancrée dans la science, qui cherche à comprendre nos pensées, nos sentiments et nos comportements. Il s’agit d’un très vaste domaine : certains professionnels de la psychologie élaborent et testent des théories au moyen de la recherche, tandis que d’autres travaillent pour aider les individus, les organisations et les collectivités à mieux fonctionner. D’autres encore sont à la fois des chercheurs et des praticiens.
Chaque année, en février, on célèbre le Mois de la psychologie pour souligner les contributions des psychologues canadiens et expliquer aux Canadiens comment la psychologie aide les gens à vivre une vie saine et heureuse, les collectivités à s’épanouir, les employeurs à créer de meilleurs milieux de travail et les gouvernements à élaborer des politiques efficaces.
À cause de la COVID-19, le public, de même que les psychologues, est confronté à une gamme de nouveaux défis. Durant le Mois de la psychologie de cette année, nous allons mettre en évidence les psychologues canadiens qui contribuent de diverses façons à la lutte contre la pandémie.
Nous rencontrerons des psychologues qui fournissent de l’aide psychologique aux Canadiens sur de nouvelles plateformes et qui s’occupent des problèmes de santé mentale qui ont surgi en raison du virus et des confinements. Nous vous ferons connaître des chercheurs qui étudient les répercussions de la pandémie sur notre bonheur, notre sommeil, notre travail et nos croyances. Nous présenterons des experts qui étudient la façon dont nous réagissons aux directives de la santé publique, à la montée du racisme et à la prolifération des théories du complot.
Et bien plus encore!
Participez, joignez-vous à la conversation et partagez les profils de ces psychologues dès le 1er février.
- Suivez-nous sur instagram@canadianPsychological, où un nouveau profil sera publié chaque jour en février.
- Suivez @CPA_SCP sur Twitter ou cliquez sur « J’aime » sur notre page Facebook et partagez les histoires et les profils avec vos abonnés et vos amis
- Parlez-nous de votre travail de psychologue ou dites-nous comment la psychologie a fonctionné pour vous pendant la COVID en utilisant le mot-clic #PsychologieEtCovid.
- Téléchargez notre affiche et installez-la dans votre bureau ou utilisez-la pour accompagner les activités que vous menez dans le cadre du Mois de la psychologie.
Psychology Month has been extended two days, so we can bring you the work of Dr. Justin Presseau, who is co-Chairing a working group of behavioural scientists advising Ontario healthcare executives and government representatives on best practices during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Dr. Justin Presseau is going to welcome a new baby in about a month. His wife Leigh is eight months pregnant, which means this new child will be born in the middle of a global pandemic.
This adds one more job to Dr. Presseau’s portfolio, which also includes Scientist at the Ottawa Hospital Research Institute, Associate Professor in the School of Epidemiology and Public Health and in the School of Psychology at the University of Ottawa, and the Chair of the Health Psychology and Behavioural Medicine Section of the CPA.
As with many researchers, much of Dr. Presseau’s work had to pivot because of the pandemic. He leads a team co-developing new ways to support new Canadians with diabetes to be comfortable taking an eye test. Retinopathy is a manageable issue for people with diabetes when identified through regular screening but attendance rates could be improved, and so Dr. Presseau and his team are building relationships with different communities and community health centres virtually.
Another thing that’s difficult to do from a distance is blood donation. Dr. Presseau and his team are working with Canadian Blood Services and local communities to develop approaches to support men who have sex with men who may want to donate blood plasma, as screening and deferral policies continue to change to allow more MSM to donate if they want. Part of that work involves addressing the historic inequities that led to the exclusion of these men in the first place. But then – there was a pandemic, and his team like so many others have pivoted to continuing to develop key community relationships and campaigns virtually.
In addition, Dr. Presseau is tackling a lot of COVID-related projects, like for example a national survey of to understand what factors are associated with touching eyes, nose and mouth. The research is changing as we continue to develop an understanding of how COVID-19 is transmitted.
Maybe the most important of these COVID-related projects is the , a group of behavioural science experts and public health leaders who summarize behavioural science evidence in the context of COVID-19 and identify actionable guidance for Ontario’s pandemic response. Dr. Presseau is the co-Chair of this working group, which also involves CPA President Dr. Kim Corace.
“We sit within the larger Ontario Science Advisory Table. We’ve brought together expertise in behavioural science and particularly psychologists across Ontario, based both in academia and within government, to work alongside public health experts and ministry representatives.”
Dr. Presseau says that because the working group contains representatives from all these different areas and the team can communicate directly in this setting with decision makers and policy creators, it is the most direct form of knowledge transfer and knowledge mobilization of behavioural science in which he has been involved in his career.
“From an impact perspective, we get to translate our science to people who can make use of it right away, and they can also provide feedback to us – what are they looking for? What’s helpful to them? Of all the things I’ve done in my career this feels among the most impactful. One of the hats I also wear in the hospital where I’m based is Scientific Lead for Knowledge Translation [in the Ottawa Methods Centre], so I think about knowledge translation a lot. The ability to connect directly with those in the field that are making a difference is excellent. It’s also such a validating experience for me, as a behavioural scientist and a psychologist, to see that there’s recognition of our science and a need for an understanding of how we can draw from the behavioural sciences to support Ontarians and Canadians.”
The Behavioural Science Working Group is currently focused on vaccine confidence and uptake among health care professionals. Over 80% of Ontario health care workers say overwhelmingly that they intend to receive a COVID-19 vaccine when it is available to them. The working group is looking to communicate behavioural science approaches to support healthcare organisations across the province to optimise their vaccine promotion programs – for instance, by clarifying that despite having been created at record speed, these vaccines have been shown to be safe and effective and it’s important that those in the healthcare field get one.
Part of this is modeling good behaviour for the rest of the population. And within the healthcare field, modeling good behaviour is one way the working group is hoping to reach those who may be undecided. It’s one thing to have politicians and celebrities get vaccinated publicly, it’s another far more effective thing for your peer group, and hospital CEOs, and team leaders, to do so in front of your team.
Much of this work involves drawing on the literature from around the world to inform hospital policy or public policy. But some of it happens directly, and goes in two directions. For example,
“Our co-chair Dr. Laura Desveaux and her team did surveys with healthcare workers that not only ask if they intend to get the COVID vaccine, but also ask questions that are drawing from behavioural science and psychological principles around the specific constructs or factors might be associated with greater or lesser intention. So they were able to identify key predictors in healthcare workers in January of 2021, the most current data we have. So it’s kind of exciting to be able to quickly draw from on-the-ground data, iterate principles, and push that out to the field to support those who are doing this.”
We have asked most of our Psychology Month participants if they see a ‘silver lining’ in the pandemic. Something that is good, but that would not otherwise have happened absent the pandemic. Dr. Presseau says one silver lining is that it has highlighted just how important and relevant health psychology and behavioural medicine are to understanding and supporting health behaviour change and health and well-being during pandemics.
“After all, behaviour underpins most if not all the public health measures and vaccination activities that are key to seeing the other side of this pandemic.”
When Leigh and Justin’s baby is born, the pandemic will still be ongoing. But that baby will be born into a world that has a much greater understanding of pandemic science, of the behavioural science that accompanies it, and with more and more diverse teams of interdisciplinary experts working together to solve problems – locally, provincially, nationally, and globally.
One day, this baby will grow into a person who can take pride that Dad had a lot to do with that.
At Dalhousie University, Dr. Natalie Rosen studies sexual health in the context of couples. Many people thought there would be a baby boom during the pandemic – Dr. Rosen explains why this hasn’t happened.
Where are all the babies? When the COVID-19 pandemic started creating lockdowns in March of 2020, the memes were everywhere. The generation that was sure to come from the pandemic baby boom was being given all kinds of names – Coronials! Baby Zoomers! We were all looking forward to making lame jokes in 2033 about these children entering their Quaranteens.
It made some sense that we would think that way – hey, we’re stuck at home with nothing else to do, we’ll probably all bake more cheesecake, learn a new instrument, and make a bunch of babies. But the boom never came. In fact, Canada’s birth rate in 2020 declined by 0.73% from 2019 – continuing a steady trend downward that continues into 2021 (we are projected to decline by 0.74% this year). So what gives?
Dr. Natalie Rosen specializes in couples and sex. Dr. Rosen is a clinical psychologist and an associate professor in the departments of Psychology and Neuroscience, and Obstetrics and Gynecology at Dalhousie University. She and her team are currently in the middle of several longitudinal studies with couples, some of which began before the pandemic. They’re hoping that they get some good data at the end of the studies that can shed light on the impacts of pandemic-related stress on sexual health, particularly for vulnerable groups like new parents. In the meantime, she’s looking at other studies that are just now starting to release data.
“A study published last Spring in the States looked at the impact of COVID on people’s sex lives. What they found was that just over 40% of people said their sex lives had taken a hit and were declining. Just over 40% said it was about the same, and then there was a minority of about 13% who reported that their sex lives had actually improved during the pandemic. I think it’s fair to extrapolate to some extent to Canadians, which means a big chunk of us are experiencing a declines in their sex lives.”
So what happened? Why aren’t people having sex more than ever? Where are all the babies we were promised in the memes? Dr. Rosen says we probably should have known this would be the case.
“I think that was wishful thinking. We actually know that for many people, stress and uncertainty puts quite a damper on mood and desire for sex. Of course, there are lots of individual differences, so not everyone is the same, but for many people stress and uncertainty negatively impact sexuality. Also, when you think about all the young families who have had these extended periods of time with their kids at home – not only is that a stressor, but it’s also interfering with opportunities for sex.”
Dr. Rosen’s research focuses on sexual dysfunction from a couples’ perspective. In the past, much of the research has focused on the person with the problem – but of course many sexual problems exist within the context of the couple, and she says that very often the other person in the relationship really wants to be involved and to do something differently in order to help their partner and improve their sex lives. Dr. Rosen’s team is hoping to expand the availability of couple-based, empirically supported, treatments available for sexual dysfunction. They have an upcoming publication reporting on a randomized clinical trial for the results of a novel couple therapy vs. a medical intervention for pain experienced during sex, and they are hoping to do the same with low desire. They’ve just launched a CIHR-funded study into couple therapy when women have low sexual desire.
Dr. Rosen’s clinical work is small. She works with a few couples each week who have sexual problems, such as pain during sex and low desire, and with couples who are going through major life transitions, like becoming new parents. In the beginning of the pandemic she paused her practice because it was impossible to meet in-person, but Halifax is doing well enough that she was able to start seeing couples in person again last Fall. She says that some of the couples she sees have adapted to virtual sessions and now prefer that, so going forward it looks like her clinical practice will be the kind of hybrid model we might expect to see in most clinical settings post-pandemic.
The biggest disruption for Dr. Rosen is likely the lack of travel – in a typical year she’s on a plane every six weeks or so, going to an academic conference, or visiting her family in Ottawa or Toronto. She says that now, she hasn’t seen most of her family in over year outside her husband and two children – but that this slowing down of the pace of life has had its benefits.
“For us it’s been a kind of investment in the nuclear family, spending lots of time just the four of us. And we’ve also had the chance to really explore a lot of the nooks and crannies of Nova Scotia! I also find that it’s forced me to take a step back and evaluate what’s important to me. I can get caught up in the minutia of my work, and particularly early in the pandemic I felt the frustration of trying to find work-life balance with two young kids at home. But you take a deep breath, and you figure out your values - health, family, happiness. I care about my work a lot, but there’s a pandemic, and there are many times when it just can’t be the number one priority!”
People across Canada are re-evaluating their priorities and have been for almost a year now. Like Dr. Rosen and her family, they are finding ways to support one another, to balance work and home life, and to stay as healthy and happy as they can throughout. Dr. Rosen emphasizes that finding ways to prioritize and connect sexually with your partner has many benefits for health and well- being. And that’s a valuable thing to do – just don’t feel like you have to live up to the memes of March!
Dr. Vina Goghari is the Editor of the Canadian Psychology journal. The amount of pandemic-related research and article submissions has been overwhelming in the past few months. The upcoming COVID special edition of the journal will present papers that cover a very broad range of topics related to the pandemic.
Dr. Vina Goghari had big plans for 2020. There were going to be conferences that would synergize with her vacations – including one in Banff where she was planning to rent a cottage and hang out with some of her friends. A couple of talks in Vienna were going to allow her to explore the nearby areas and experience Austria for the first time. Instead her breaks disappeared, her workload increased threefold, and she ended up stuck at home with a kidney stone for five months. 2020, right?
Dr. Goghari is a professor at the University of Toronto where she is the Graduate Chair of the Clinical Psychology program. What interests us here at the moment is Dr. Goghari’s position as the editor of Canadian Psychology/Psychologie canadienne, the flagship journal of the Canadian Psychological Association. The bulk of a journal editor’s work is remote already, so very little has changed in that respect, but the pandemic has created a bit of a slowdown in the review process.
“The ability of academics to spend their time on peer review has been impacted. I find they’ve still been gracious, and people are still volunteering to review these papers, but sometimes we find that people need more leeway in terms of time to actually get us the review back. We’ve been lucky that both the authors and the reviewers are having a little bit more patience with each other, and the editor, and the associate editors. It allows us to make sure this process is still equitable and fair and we still get enough reviews.”
Another thing that has, predictably, changed is the number of submissions Canadian Psychology is receiving concerning COVID itself. So many, that they have prepared a special issue just for the pandemic. Dr. Goghari says the volume of articles has been overwhelming.
“We did a call for COVID papers in May dealing with psychological perspectives on the pandemic – we feel a psychological, as well as a Canadian/International, lens is very important to helping people deal with the pandemic in terms of work and life balance and mental health. The Special Issue will be coming out in the next few weeks. We saw a record number of papers for that call. This was especially so (true) for the two of us who are the English-speaking editors ̶ we were fielding a tremendous number of papers! It was positive in the sense that the psychological perspective on the pandemic is resonating with people, but also really increased our workload, as we always want to ensure we do a professional job with all submissions. Luckily we were able to get through all of them, and I really think we have a fantastic special issue
Canadian Psychology is a generalist journal, which allowed Dr. Goghari and her team to design the COVID special issue with intention. They wanted the articles to cover a wide range of topics related to Canadians, and to reflect different parts of our society and our population. There are articles about work, sleep, mental health, adults, children, training, and much more. There are also two articles in French, and Dr. Goghari hopes that there is something for everybody in this journal issue.
Not only have they seen an increase in COVID papers, but papers regarding race-related issues that have become increasingly front and centre over the past year. More papers addressing topics such as mental health and racial disparities have been submitted. Dr. Goghari says she wishes this has also been the case for journal in the past given the importance of these societal issues, but is heartened to see that this is more of a focus now.
“One of the things COVID highlighted was that the pandemic doesn’t affect everyone equally. There are certain groups that are more affected by the pandemic like the elderly, we know that there were racial disparities in both outcome and incidence of the virus. And so the two things came together – the societal tensions on race, but also highlighted and made worse by the COVID pandemic interacting with these factors.”
Dr. Goghari says that she is encouraged by the rise in awareness created by the new focus on inequities and dismantling the systemic causes of racism. She is also encouraged by the number of papers she and her team are receiving surrounding COVID and expects that the studies launched later in the pandemic that focus on longer term impact, challenges, opportunities, and resilience, will produce some new, useful, and fascinating results. Dr. Goghari is above all an optimist. Even when it comes to missing out on some great trips, and a kidney stone!
“I find I don’t really miss the things like travel – they were just perks. I miss seeing my friends and my family. I also had some interaction with the health care system because I had a kidney stone for five months. I was very grateful for all the people who are still doing ultrasounds and CT scans and keeping the hospitals clean for us. They were just so kind! Even though they themselves were dealing with all these things, I was touched by their professionalism and their help even while I could see the burden on the health care system. When the kidney stone clinic had to close, there was an onslaught of people and we all have to get in…it was a very eye opening experience. Given what the health care workers go through, they were tremendous even though they must be in a difficult situation. I think COVID plus a kidney stone made me grateful for all the smaller things!”
Dr. Judy Moench has helped create protocols to help her Alberta community and others during the pandemic. Prepped 4 Learning helps teachers, parents, and kids cope with disruption. The Self-care Traumatic Episode Protocol (STEP) is helping mental health clinicians, hospital staff, and others decrease stress and increase coping.
“I feel like a budding musician who started out in the basement! During COVID we weren’t able to get into a studio or anything like that so I literally developed these videos in my basement using audio on my phone.”
The Self-care Traumatic Episode Protocol fits into a neat little acronym – STEP! Was this one of those programs that worked backward, to shoehorn its description into an easily-remembered four-letter word? Dr. Judy Moench says no.
“It was named that on purpose because it’s a modified version of a protocol that was developed called EMDRGTEP – which is the Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing Group Traumatic Episode Protocol.”
Nobody worked backward, I think we can assume, to make EMDRGTEP a neat little acronym!
Dr. Moench is a registered psychologist in Alberta with a private practice, and also an adjunct professor at the University of Alberta. During COVID, she’s been working on a number of protocols that might be helpful in the community. One is a school-based program, focused on the universal promotion of emotional health with an emphasis on the well-being of students. Prepped 4 Learning is a self-regulation program that starts with teachers and parents helping kids regulate to learn, all the way up to what to do if there is a crisis in school. Dr. Moench thinks STEP might be helpful in this setting as well, for teachers in particular, and they are beginning research with school staff soon.
STEP was launched during the pandemic to assist mental health clinicians, medical staff, and other front line workers to decrease stress and increase coping. The idea was that because people were unable to meet in person a computer-delivered protocol was necessary. This was not intended to be a substitute for psychological treatment or medical diagnoses, but that a 90-minute session with STEP videos could develop containment strategies that would allow them to continue working on the front lines through this time of overwhelming stress. Eye movement is part of the process.
“Eye movement is part of EMDR Therapy, an approach that has an eight-phase model, and you go through all the phases with a client to help them resolve unprocessed material and recover from distressing life experiences. STEP is an adapted protocol but it still uses eye movements and goes through modified phases of treatment – you print out a worksheet, and the person taps from one side of the protocol sheet to the other side and follows with their eyes as they’re doing that. The eye movements help to add distance and give calmness around the event that is being processed. It helps to consolidate the memory in a more cohesive way.”
Normally Dr. Moench and her team would do this kind of activity in groups in the office. You know, in the before-times. Now, this program has to be modified for online delivery, which means a few steps have been adapted. Typically, EMDR treatment would involve an extensive history with the client – with STEP, this has been modified to a few specific questions up front that ensure the person is ready and eligible to use the protocol. For example, someone who was thinking about suicide, or had a complex trauma history, may be better served with one-to-one EMDR Therapy.
Another thing that sets STEP apart is that it is designed to deal with only one very specific trauma episode at a time – right now, the trauma brought on most recently by the COVID-19 pandemic. Dr. Moench calls this ‘titration’, and it narrows the focus to that one episode and excludes the larger history that might otherwise be part of treatment.
“With STEP, the research study we did focused exclusively on COVID. Since then, I’ve used it with other things that aren’t specifically COVID-related…even though right now everything is kinda COVID-related! But there are other events that are happening along with the pandemic.”
The STEP protocol has been used in Alberta with mental health clinicians, with a small group of staff from the United Nations, and with other national and international groups in which Dr. Moench is a member. Right now, she and her team are making a more professional version of the current STEP videos – after all, the originals were shot in her basement with audio from her phone! Only time will tell if this psychology-as-garage-rock-band will be a pandemic-specific flash in the pan (like the Strokes) or a longer lasting international sensation (like U2).
Hey…that’s got us thinking now. How come there hasn’t been a Live Aid / Live 8 pandemic relief show yet? Those were always super-distanced!
Dr. Chloe Hamza has an article in the upcoming Canadian Psychology journal COVID-19 special edition entitled ‘When Social Isolation Is Nothing New’. It’s part of an ongoing study of post-secondary students, some of whom had pre-existing mental health concerns before the pandemic, and some of whom didn’t.
Dr Chloe Hamza
Dr. Chloe Hamza is an assistant professor in the department of Applied Psychology and Human Development at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education at the University of Toronto. She’s the lab director of the CARE lab (Coping, Affect, and Resilience in Education), and her research has been broadly about stress and coping among postsecondary students. It was with this focus that she and her team ran a study looking at the psychological impacts of COVID-19 among postsecondary students.
Like so many other studies at this time, Dr. Hamza and her team were lucky to have already done a similar survey, that one in May of 2019. This meant that repeating many of the same questions with many of the same participants could give a good indication of where they were now, with the pandemic, compared to where they were before.
“We had some pre-COVID assessment data, and then we went back in May 2020 and surveyed students again. We were looking at stress, coping, and mental health before and during the pandemic. What we had originally hypothesized was that students with pre-existing mental health concerns would be those who would be most adversely impacted by the pandemic. But what we found was that students who had pre-existing mental health concerns fared similarly or were actually improving during the pandemic. Whereas students without pre-existing mental health concerns showed the greatest decline in mental health.”
This study, and these results, have resulted in an article that will be published in this month’s COVID-19 special issue of the journal Canadian Psychology. (See our upcoming profile of Dr. Vina Goghari for more on the journal the day the special edition comes out.) The article is called ‘When Social Isolation is Nothing New’, and it details these findings from Dr. Hamza and her team.
“When we looked at why those students without pre-existing concerns were declining, we found that increasing social isolation seemed to be associated with deteriorating mental health. What that seems to suggest is that if you were feeling socially disconnected before the pandemic, which in our case was among students with pre-existing mental health concerns, the start of the pandemic and distancing guidelines may have been less impactful. In contrast, if you weren’t used to experiencing social isolation, and this was a real change for you, your mental health was more likely to decline.”
It looks, for now, as though students with pre-existing concerns were already experiencing some kind of isolation socially pre-pandemic, and that has made the adjustment easier and less impactful for them than it has for others. There are of course other possibilities that might account for the findings of Dr. Hamza and her team, and they plan to explore those in a follow-up study that is beginning right now.
“For many students some stressors actually decreased. For example, having multiple competing demands, or academic pressures, lessened. Which sort of makes sense if you think about how universities initially responded to the pandemic. Students weren’t going to class any more, they may not be going to work, and so the demands on their time – both academic and vocational – may have decreased.”
The follow-up study is currently under way, where Dr. Hamza and her team are asking those same students how they’re coping now during the pandemic. Some of it will involve the results of the previous study, where they will ask the participants about the results. “Here are some of our findings – how does this resonate with you? Do you think it’s accurate? What are some of the reasons you think we might have seen this result back in May?”
While that study is ongoing, Dr. Hamza is also focused on her own students – trying her best to ensure that they remain engaged, well, and healthy through what has been a very difficult school year. Her department does a ‘wellness challenge’ which challenges people to get outside and walk, or pick up and learn a new instrument, or try a new recipe. All things we can do to maintain better mental health during this time of isolation. Things that are good both for those of us who are still new to distancing and socializing remotely, and for those of us for whom social isolation is nothing new.
Dr. Laurie Ford at UBC has school psychologists to train, students adjusting to online learning, and innovations to replace hands-on experiences. She also has a community garden and two great dogs!
“Every night we talk on FaceMail”.
Two things are getting Dr. Laurie Ford through this pandemic in a positive way. One is her nightly ‘FaceMail’ chats with her dad in Oklahoma. Not sure if this means FaceTime, or FaceBook, or Zoom or some other video chat platform, but dad calls it FaceMail and so FaceMail it is. The other is a community garden where Dr. Ford is the President. The garden has become a meeting-place and something of a pandemic oasis throughout the past year. Sometimes up to six or seven people, Laurie and her friends, will head to the garden after work, sit well-distanced on the various plots, and share a laugh and a glass of wine. Maybe pull some weeds. It’s a nice break from long days at work.
“I’m getting a lot of work done – when all I have to do is go to the front of my house and come back. The bad thing is I think many of us are working too much, as the lines between work and home are blurring.”
Even Dr. Ford’s beloved community garden has become part of that blurring of work-home-life, her meetings with friends inspired her to do the same with her grad students. A few months into the pandemic, she suddenly realized that most of her students lived in Vancouver but had never actually met one another in person! With the exception of one student stuck in Australia and one stuck in Alaska, she invited them all to meet, in person, at the garden. (The two stranded students were able to join virtually, by Zoom.)
Dr. Ford is at UBC. She is the Director of Training for the School and Applied Child Psychology program and has been involved in training school psychologists for a long time. She is also a board member at the CPA. As the pandemic has gone on, she has become more and more accustomed to Zoom calls, as has her dogs Gracie Belle and Cooper come to say hi and investigate the goings-on before wandering off to find more interesting ‘dog stuff’ as Dr. Ford goes back to teaching her now presumably more interested class.
“One of the big things, from a training perspective, is to figure out ways that students can get some of that hands-on training, in schools and in clinical settings, when everything’s restricted. The other part that’s related to training is – how do you move to train people to do service delivery in less traditional ways?”
Right now, Dr. Ford’s training is primarily preparing Masters and Doctoral-level school psychologists. Training that would ordinarily involve a lot of hands-on experience. Before 2020, Dr. Ford would take her students to a local homeless shelter for some classes. Others would take place in a rehab clinic, or a xʷməθkʷəy̓əm (People of the River Grass) longhouse located within walking distance of the UBC campus. Dr. Ford says, just being in these physical locations was a huge part of the experience. That, of course, has not been possible in the past year. So they are finding some workarounds.
Members of community join Dr. Ford’s Communities Systems class some weeks as they try alternate ways to immerse students in a variety of settings. In this class and others, she’s also experimenting with videos, podcasts, and other methods of delivering information that are different that simple Zoom lectures. She says she has been surprisingly impressed by how many of her students are doing the extra work and taking advantage of the extra content she makes available to them.
“I think I was just so determined to make this be awesome, even though it sucked being on line, that it’s made me become more familiar with the technology of teaching online, but it has also in some ways made me work harder to find diverse sources of information. I actually think I’m better teaching this course than I have been in the past. I’ve had to work harder to be more creative to find new and better ways to engage my students. It’s made me think like the kids a little bit – I’m doing less lecturing and I’m using podcasts and videos. They’re good teaching pedagogies that we talk about but then we kind of get lazy, you know? So I really think I’m doing a little bit of a better job this year!”
Dr. Ford has a big personality, the kind that can fill a lecture hall in person better than a Zoom screen. She says she misses that part of teaching, addressing a large room full of people, and it’s clear that will be the first thing on the docket, whenever this pandemic ends and she can get back to the front of a class. But while it goes on, she hopes that the innovations she and her students have come up with have made her a better teacher, and they have certainly made her more tech-savvy. When the spring arrives, her students will be able to meet one another again, in a safely distanced fashion. They still have the community garden.
And Laurie’s dad will still have his FaceMail.
When the pandemic began, Dr. Mélanie Joanisse created a simple, easy, and funny Guide to Wellness for her frontline co-workers at the Montfort hospital. It immediately took off and has been shared and translated around the world to help healthcare workers everywhere.
“I wrote this in what I would call a hypomanic phase…as psychologists, we always have to pathologize any kind of creativity.”
Dr. Mélanie Joanisse was still processing the fact that she was not going to be able to attend a Pearl Jam concert when she had something of a viral moment in the early days of the pandemic. Can we still say ‘going viral’? Or has that phrase now passed out of the lexicon like so many others before it that conjure unwelcome memories? Anyway, a lot of people suddenly found Dr. Joanisse’s work. Like, a LOT of people. Her ‘Guide To Wellness’ was being discovered.
“I got a call from the communications director at the Montfort hospital, who said ‘what was your marketing and communication strategy for this? [Mélanie laughs heartily] I was like…none? She said we were being bombarded with messages from people who said they like it, and I was starting to receive a lot of emails – even from people in Europe – saying ‘we like this, can we translate it?’ And so I said sure, go for it! So the communications team at the Montfort helped me to create a creative commune so people would understand that they could just take it.”
Dr. Joanisse’s has a private practice in Ottawa, but does a lot of work at the Montfort Hospital, Ontario’s only francophone hospital. When the pandemic first hit, she saw at the Montfort the stress that the staff was experiencing. The sudden worry among doctors and nurses. The occupational therapists and social workers who were wearing masks and gowns, something they would never have done before. It was all hands on deckand changed how everyone was working. She wanted to do whatever she could in her capacity as a psychologist to help.
“As a psychologist I’m not trained in acute care – no one would want me in the ER! So I figured maybe doing a guide would be helpful. I was reading a lot online, and there are a lot of good resources, but I was just picturing a physician or a nurse or an RT sitting down with a list of 25 papers that they could read on wellness. I just pictured them shutting down their computers and saying ‘I don’t have time or the capacity for this’.”
So Dr. Joanisse set about writing something that encompassed as much as possible about the evidence-based ways to wellness, but to package it in a more engaging way. Visually attractive, a little bit funny, and representative of what frontline healthcare workers were experiencing. An easily-digestible light read, rather than another arduous undertaking.
“The only mask you should be wearing is a medical mask; please discard the infallible mask, as research has shown it suffocates its users.”
- From the Guide To Wellness
The humour in the guide comes from Dr. Joanisse herself. She’s extremely funny, in a very natural way, and that good humour has helped her get through this pandemic and all the setbacks. Like the Pearl Jam concert she missed – her first realization of how big COVID-19 was going to be was that cancelation. Or, more recently, the Chiefs loss in the Super Bowl – her husband is a huge Chiefs fan and just after they were married they flew to Kansas City to take in a game at Arrowhead. In 2019, moments before the pandemic really took hold, the Chiefs finally overcame decades of ineptitude to deliver a Super Bowl victory to fans like Mélanie’s husband.
“Last year when they won, it was pre-pandemic so we were at a friend’s house for the Super Bowl. He got up and spontaneously screamed ‘this is the best day of my life!’ There was a silence, and everyone looked at me. I was like, sorry daughter…birth…wedding…I’m just putting that in my pocket. The next time I spend I don’t know what on what, I’m bringing that card out!”
Now, after watching her husband celebrate the greatest day of his life, Dr. Joanisse is something of a Chiefs fan too. This is perhaps more because of Laurent Duvernay-Tardif, the French-Canadian starting right guard with a doctorate in medicine who left the Chiefs in the offseason to join the front lines of the pandemic back in Montreal. Just the kind of person who might benefit from the Guide to Wellness.
Dr. Joanisse still sees stress in her co-workers at the Montfort. Now, it’s not the stress of uncertainty that existed at the beginning of the pandemic, but rather a stress borne of long hours, fluctuating numbers, a desire for the pandemic to be over, and sheer exhaustion. She’s heartened, however, that many have taken her Guide To Wellness to heart – not only at her own hospital, but at institutions around the world.
“Now I know people in Hawaii, BC, all over the world. All types of different healthcare workers have reached out to me. It has been quite the experience, I have to say. And very moving, to know that this has touched people in that way.”
Dr. Helen Ofosu runs IO Advisory in Ottawa where she helps organizations and businesses tackle structural racism and promote equity, diversity, and inclusion. During the pandemic, more and more groups are looking for this kind of assistance and her business is growing.
Dr. Helen Ofosu
“There are certain people who, pre-pandemic, were super-productive and making amazing contributions at work. But because they weren’t bragging, buttering up the boss, or charismatic, they were overlooked. But now, when everyone’s at home, it’s easier to track who is contributing – who is sending in work product. So, all the “doers” are kind of getting their chance to shine.”
Dr. Helen Ofosu is writing a book. The working title is The Resilient Career, and will impart lessons she has learned over a 20 year career in Work and Business (Industrial/Organizational) Psychology. It will be a resource for people dealing with underemployment, harassment, workplace scapegoating, or being a newcomer to Canada trying to adapt to a new culture in the workplace. A lot of the book will be about employees’ identities, and how those tie into career progression, as well as some insights around the “glass cliff” phenomenon (i.e., women and racialized people being more likely than men to achieve leadership roles in an organization in times of crisis, when the chance of failure is much greater).
It may seem like writing a book during the COVID-19 lockdown is something a person with a lot of time on their hands would decide to do. That does not seem to be the case for Dr. Ofosu, who is an HR Consultant, Executive Coach, and Career Coach who runs I/O Advisory Services in Ottawa. Much like the employees she sees getting more recognition for the work they do during the pandemic, Dr. Ofosu is getting more recognition as well. The bulk of her clients were once in Ottawa, but now that Zoom is the de facto way to connect she is working with companies all over Canada, and sometimes the US and Saudi Arabia.
An additional reason for that branching out is the newfound focus companies are placing on systemic discrimination, anti-racist workplaces and restructuring their policies around equity, diversity, and inclusion. That happens to be Dr. Ofosu’s specialty – what she refers to as a ‘passion project’ turned full-fledged business line. This process is taking something of a different turn now as well, with the pandemic forcing this kind of coaching to be done at a distance. At the moment, this is mainly taking the form of mentorship and sponsorship programs for employees.
“My favourite model is one that I’ve been experimenting with and tweaking – it’s blending mentorship with allyship. At the same time that we train mentors to be more effective working with racialized people with whom they may not have a lot of experience, we’re also going to train a second group of people called ‘allies.’ These are people who may be senior and well-intentioned in the organization, but who don’t have the time to dedicate to either a one-on-one protégé or a small group of protégés. But they can still benefit from some training around systemic discrimination and what it means to be a good ally and mentor. They can then be out there in their organization as resources and influencers on more of an ad hoc basis.”
The mentors and the allies both receive the same kind of training – but while the allies tend to have giant workloads and full calendars and therefore less time to dedicate to this sort of thing, the mentors commit to six month or year-long programs where they check in with Dr. Ofosu regularly.
Mentors are ideally people in leadership positions in the organization. They are people with good ‘soft skills’ (e.g., communication, empathy, judgement, strategic thinking, etc.) and a genuine interest in supporting the career development of more junior employees. This way they will be more effective at imparting the lessons learned to the rest of their teams.
It was shortly after the death of George Floyd that a group in Toronto reached out to Dr. Ofosu, and it’s with this group that she has been developing the mentorship program as it stands today to support communication, marketing, and PR professionals in Canada. Now the federal government has caught wind, and she’s working with them to get this program launched there as well.
That likely means more work, which might also mean less time working on her book. But Dr. Ofosu will find the time, while still taking the occasional break. One of the perks of living in Ottawa is all that free time outdoors taking long walks and shoveling snow, where she puts on her headphones and listens to R&B, gospel, and hiphop music. Then she’ll come back in refreshed, ready to work on that book (with support from her American editor) and to get busy supporting leaders and dismantling structural racism at organizations across Canada.
The COVID-19 pandemic has made racism worse around the world for marginalized communities. Racism has made the pandemic worse for those communities as well. Dr. Maya Yampolsky specializes in social and cultural psychology, with a particular focus in her research on systemic racism and how racism enters into our personal lives.
In the spring of 2020, there was a COVID outbreak at a homeless shelter in Ottawa. The outbreak was traced back to two immigrant women who were both working at multiple long-term care homes in the city, and who lived at the homeless shelter. As new Canadians with few job prospects, personal support worker positions were some of the only jobs the two women could get. Those jobs paid so little that they were forced to work in more than one location in order to make enough money to live. Even then, they did not make enough to afford rent and so they had to live at the homeless shelter. It was a perfect storm of transmission as vulnerable people in one population brought the virus to vulnerable people in another. As many pointed out at the time, this was eminently predictable.
COVID-19 has had a disproportionately devastating effect on Black people, Indigenous people, immigrants and refugees. Pretty much anyone that has been disadvantaged by institutions and societies over generations are now even more vulnerable because of health inequities. Dr. Maya Yampolsky is an Assistant Professor in Psychology at Université Laval. She specializes in social and cultural psychology, with a particular focus in her research on the experience of managing multicultural and intersectional identities, and how those identities are related to our broader social relationships and broader social issues – especially systemic racism and how racism enters into our personal lives.
We’re speaking on Zoom, Dr. Yampolsky in her apartment in Quebec City, in front of a blank wall that I notice looks a lot like the hallway outside my high school gym. It turns out this is by design – an avid yoga practitioner, Dr. Yampolsky has been with a group call the Art of Living Foundation for about 20 years. They are an organization that promotes individual and community development through yoga and yogic philosophy. When teaching a course, Dr. Yampolsky prefers a neutral, blank background. That said, I get the sense that a yoga class with Maya would be an awful lot of fun. She is exuberant, cheerful, friendly and animated in a way that comes through even a Zoom screen. Even when the subjects we’re discussing are rather sombre and depressing compared to yoga. Subjects like COVID, and racism.
“A lot of research showed that Black Canadians of Caribbean origin or African origin, populations that are descendants of enslaved peoples from previous centuries, these groups have continuously been targeted. As a result there’s stress, and there’s illness that builds up in the body. So a lot more of these members of our population have chronic illness, which makes them more vulnerable to COVID, and to having a more intense experience with it. This means they have worse cases and a higher mortality.”
Around the world, Black, Indigenous, Hispanic and Southeast Asian people have felt the greatest impact from the pandemic. This is in part because of the stress that comes along with the continuous targeting Dr. Yampolsky speaks about, but also because those groups are the most likely to be essential workers. Frontline healthcare employees, people who work in long-term care facilities, areas that are more susceptible to exposure. Worse health outcomes, increased exposure, and more long-term neglect of marginalized communities have combined to create a storm during the pandemic.
“This isn’t overt racism, like hatred. But it is something that manifests from the existence of structural racism that creates inequalities that then come to the surface when a pandemic hits.”
Dr. Yampolsky, along with her colleagues Andrew Ryder, John Berry, and Saba Safdar, created the fact sheet ‘Why Does Culture Matter to COVID-19’ for the CPA. That fact sheet inspired a review article she is currently working on with Rebecca Bayeh (1st author) and Andrew Ryder (last and corresponding author). Every time culture and COVID is discussed, it takes Dr. Yampolsky and her colleagues in new directions. Racism is a big part of that. With the pandemic, one thing leapt out very early.
“The World Health Organization has said that we don’t name diseases after places. And yet, people kept insisting on calling this the China Virus or worse. From there we saw a lot of hate speech emerging, and there’s been a lot of hate crime. Here in cities like Toronto and Montreal, there were a lot of defacements of businesses and sacred spaces like Buddhist temples. Asian-Canadians and Asian people abroad, in the global diaspora, and people who looked phenotypically Asian (like Northeastern states in India) were being targeted as the source of the virus and being associated with disease.”
This is sadly not a new thing. We’ve seen this before many times, with virtually every epidemic and pandemic in human history (the 1918 influenza pandemic is still called the ‘Spanish flu’ today, even though the first reports of the outbreak were in Kansas, and no evidence suggests that Spain was particularly hard-hit or that outbreaks occurred there earlier than anywhere else).
Dr. Yampolsky explains that part of the reason for this is that the human brain has shortcuts wired into it to be able to avoid danger – we see disease and immediately try to determine the source of the danger, leading us to associate a virus with a whole group. But of course, it’s more complicated than just this. It wasn’t as though everything was great, and then suddenly the pandemic created more racism – there had been a steady rise in overt racism and hate groups leading up to the onset of COVID-19, a trend that was merely accelerated by the pandemic.
Racism has always existed, and it is always there among the public – the rise has been in overt, or as Dr. Yampolsky put it, “audacious” racism. Hate groups and far-right terror groups in North America and Europe have been more bold in sharing their vitriol publicly. Even some political actions have acted to exacerbate racial tensions. Dr. Yampolsky points to Bill-21 in Quebec, the law that bans people working in public services from wearing ‘religious symbols’ of any kind.
“Anything that essentially targets a minority group will also condone hate toward that group. By its very nature, it singles them out for discrimination. And we were seeing a lot of that already.”
Discrimination against virtually all minority groups has been amped up as a result of COVID-19, in large part because that discrimination was on the rise already. The advent of the pandemic became an excuse to further scapegoat those marginalized groups among those who were already trafficking in hate. These populations already tended to be more vulnerable than others because a history of systemic racism has set them up that way.
In the middle of this perfect storm, Dr. Yampolsky sees a silver lining, maybe a light at the end of the tunnel.
“Hopefully the fact that COVID happened, and then this latest big anti-racism movement – as far as I can tell, the biggest since the civil rights movement – in a way COVID facilitated drawing our attention to what was an existing situation. We weren’t going out, we weren’t being distracted, and so our attention was drawn towards anti-racism. This, positively, has yielded a lot more awareness about racism, and institutional valuing and awareness about racism as well. So that also gives me hope – in the sense that COVID showed us that we’re all connected, it also drew our attention to these things that needed repair, and needed work. I hope that it does end up building more responsible, more healthy, and happier connections with one another.”
There’s still a huge amount of work to do building those connections. To avoid another scenario like the one that happened in Ottawa in the spring, immigrants and refugees require greater supports. Personal support workers, and others we consider essential, require higher salaries. We also need to build ethical and cooperative interactions with Black and Indigenous peoples. There must be equitable and affordable housing for all. And the structural systems that create these conditions must be dismantled.
Dr. Maya Yampolsky is one of the people that will move us closer, as a society, to creating those connections. After an hour with her on Zoom, it’s almost impossible not to be inspired to get out there and start working on dismantling racist structures and historic disenfranchisement. And also, maybe even to sign up for her yoga class.
Courtney Gosselin was one of 25 students from Canada and the UK who worked on the COVID-19 Coping Study between March and August. Part of the study was letters people wrote to their past selves (pre-pandemic) and future selves (what they thought at the time would be post-pandemic).
“Find time for yourself, life will slow down, and that’s okay. Take time to learn lessons, take time to really appreciate everything. You are strong, creative and independent, which will all come in handy.”
- Anonymous, writing a note to their past self during the pandemic
Courtney Gosselin is a graduate student in clinical psychology at Acadia University. She’s doing her Masters-level research with Dr. Karen Blair and Dr. Diane Holmberg, and as COVID-19 has overwhelmed most of our lives, their research has moved in that direction as well. Dr. Blair and her colleagues embarked on a large-scale COVID-19 coping study. At the end of the survey, there were two questions – one was a message to a past self, before the pandemic began. The other, a message to a future self several weeks later.
The questions were inspired by a video made by Italian filmmaker Olmo Parenti called 10 Days Later. In the earliest part of the pandemic, when Italy was being hit harder than nearly any country in the world, Parenti asked Italians to record messages to themselves just ten days earlier – what did they wish they had known just ten days ago?
“What you might think is coming is not nearly what is coming. What is happening is much, much worse than what you thought it could be.”
- Anonymous Italian citizen, 10 Days Later video
The Italian 10 Days Later video was filmed in early March. At the time, it was intended to be a warning to the rest of the world. It was estimated that at the time, France and the United States were about 10 days behind where Italy was in the progression of COVID-19, and the hope was that people in those, and other countries, would see this and take the virus seriously.
When Courtney and her group began asking the two questions developed by Dr. Blair, it was much further into the pandemic. Like, a few weeks further into it, which in March and April was a fairly large passage of time in which an awful lot happened here in Canada. She and fellow Acadia student Abbey Miller developed a coding scheme to look at the more than 500 responses.
There was at least one person who advised their earlier self to “Buy Zoom shares, sell Air Canada, don't worry about toilet paper.”, but very few were so self-serving. What Courtney and her team were struck by was the overall tone of hope, the positivity, and the more optimistic and encouraging series of messages. Advice to take time for self-care, to slow down and enjoy the little things in life. The encouraging messages were ten times more common than the discouraging ones.
“This is a chance for you to connect with the part of yourself that thrives on solitude, thinking, listening to nature, watching the sun rise and set.”
While the messages to past selves were largely optimistic, the messages to future selves were a little different. A lot of them would fall into the category of “hey, self – is it over yet?” Says Dr. Blair, “none of us thought it would go on this long either. Now that we think about it, instead of asking them to write to themselves six weeks from now, we should also have asked them to write for six months, or a year, from now.” Some participants stayed in the study for four weeks, and often their future messages would be the same week in and week out – how are things NOW?
“As the world opens up, how do we cope with physical distance, the funerals that have been postponed and loss in general (not due to COVID sickness but impacted by its limitations)?”
Courtney and Dr. Blair say they would like to do another survey of this kind with a different set of questions to see if the optimism and hope that they saw back in March and April has remained. They would do it a little bit differently though, as logistically this one was a bit of a nightmare for their lab. Software, time zones, and other factors came into play and resulted in a group of students going into the lab almost every night to send out the surveys manually, from 6 pm in Newfoundland to 6 pm in BC.
It was, as a result, a very labour-intensive study to run. Especially for the students, like Courtney and the 24 others from Canada and the UK who worked on it between late March and early August. At the beginning, as the pandemic was just hitting Canada and the study was just beginning, they were running on adrenaline. The need to get something done, the need to find a way to help during the COVID-19 crisis, drove them to work longer hours and search for answers.
If they were to do it again now, would they have the same motivation? Would they feel the same urgency, almost a year into the pandemic? It’s tough to say – just as it’s tough to say whether the responses would have a similar tone today as they did back in April. As one participant said,
“Am I still being a positive person?”
The proliferation of disinformation and misinformation online over the past few years has become more dangerous with the advent of the COVID-19 pandemic. Dr. Jonathan Stea, a clinical psychologist and an adjunct assistant professor at the University of Calgary, is one of two psychologists invited to join Science Up First, an initiative bringing together experts from every field to combat disinformation online.
Jonathan N. Stea
“That the outbreaks of Spanish influenza, which have given army officials some concern, may have been started by German agents who were put ashore from a submarine, was the belief expressed today by Lieut. Col. Phillip S. Doane, head of the Health and Sanitation Section of the Emergency Fleet Corporation. … 'It is quite possible that the epidemic was started by Huns sent ashore by Boche submarine commanders,’ he said. ‘We know that men have been ashore from German submarine boats, for they have been in New York and other places. It would be quite easy for one of these German agents to turn loose Spanish influenza germs in a theatre or some other place where large numbers of persons are assembled.’” (New York Times, ‘Think influenza came in U-boat’, September 19, 1918).
You can find that story on Page 11 of Dr. Steven Taylor’s book The Psychology of Pandemics: Preparing for the Next Global Outbreak of Infectious Disease. Conspiracy theories are nothing new. Conspiracies surrounding pandemics are nothing new. What has changed is the speed at which they are spread, and the maliciousness with which they are created.
Lieut. Col. Doane may have thought German U-Boat submariners were coming ashore to spread the flu in movie theatres, and his story was told to the New York Times. It was read by New Yorkers who may, or may not, have believed him. The fact that this opinion exists only in archival material and does not persist to this day, is indicative that either few people read it, few of them believed it, or both.
Lieut. Col. Doane’s theory was not posted to an 8-Chan thread, picked up by a Russian bot farm, posted to Facebook by sixty accounts, disseminated by dozens of questionable ‘news’ platforms, discovered by the President of the United States and tweeted to 90 million people, many of whom were eager to believe and spread the rumour.
This is where we live now, where disinformation and falsehoods can spread from one person to millions across the world in the blink of an eye. And in the time of a pandemic, this can be dangerous, destructive, and harmful in more ways than just fighting between friends and family members. It can put whole populations in greater danger than they need to be.
It is for this reason that scientists across Canada have come together to create the #ScienceUpFirst initiative. Dr. Jonathan N. Stea, a clinical psychologist and an adjunct assistant professor at the University of Calgary, is one of two psychologists who were asked to join the team. Along with Dr. Christine Chambers, Dr. Stea is providing his psychological expertise to combatting disinformation online – specifically, for , disinformation about COVID-19 and COVID-19 vaccines.
“It’s an ethical imperative for psychologists to promote evidence-based patient care and public health– so I’ve always been interested in things like pseudoscience and health-related misinformation. Calling that stuff out is one of our ethical imperatives.”
#ScienceUpFirst emerged from conversations between Timothy Caulfield, a professor of health, law, and policy at the University of Alberta, and Senator Stan Kutcher of Nova Scotia. Professor Caulfield has been researching online disinformation and how to debunk it for decades. Senator Kutcher, before becoming a senator, was the Department Head of Psychiatry at Dalhousie University. They got together to assemble a team of science communicators, epidemiologists, chemists, biologists, geneticists, bioethicists, infectious disease experts, and of course psychologists. Dr. Stea says,
“There is a lot that psychology can bring to the table. We’re trained extensively in science, we’re trained in critical thinking, and we’re trained to understand the ways in which we interpret information and the world more generally. I’ve personally applied these skills to communicate to the public through mainstream media channels, such as articles about tackling health-related misinformation, like how to address vaccine hesitancy and how to identify fake science news.”
This coalition of scientists is dedicated to debunking the misinformation that is out there now. They also want to do the same, as quickly as possible, after a new false narrative emerges online. And there are a lot of them – Bill Gates is microchipping you through vaccines, the numbers are being inflated to control people somehow, alternative medicine cures the virus, the list goes on. And on, and on, and on. Add to that the already loud and vocal anti-vaccination movement that predated the pandemic, and it looks like an uphill battle. But it’s one Dr. Stea is ready to wage.
“Science is an ever-evolving process, and sometimes there are disagreements between scientists. I think for the first time, science is being exposed to the public the way it has always been – as an iterative, evolving process. But for people who are unaware of that, sometimes it can be kind of jarring and it can leave people vulnerable to traps of misinformation. You’ll hear anecdotes, or testimonials on Facebook about how vaccines are extremely dangerous or how Bill Gates caused all this or something. And we want to take accurate, science-informed information and amplify that.”
The initiative is not just scientists railing against misinformation, it is designed for regular Canadians, and regular people around the world, to help amplify the message in the name of public health and protecting their communities.
Your brother-in-law posted online that the COVID-19 was engineered in a lab in China. Your former boss is constantly posting memes about the vaccine being unsafe and untested. Hank from high school is pretty convinced the virus itself is a hoax, meant to distract us all from Pizzagate. Go to #ScienceUpFirstFirst.com, the site that’s designed to help you in combatting these conspiracy theories and false information. They’re fully committed to this fight and want to provide you with the tools to join in as well so that you are not railing against misinformation alone.
Dr. Stea’s day job involves providing psychological treatment in a specialized interdisciplinary outpatient clinic for people who present with both substance use and psychiatric disorders. With the pandemic, he and his colleagues have helped people with these conditions adapt and cope with the additional stressful layer of COVID-related anxiety and uncertainty.. Social media, and the conspiracy theories it perpetuates, does not help. And the volume of these things is only increasing. And of course, that’s where Dr. Stea is spending a fair amount of his spare time.
In 1963, Republican Presidential candidate Barry Goldwater refused to distance himself from the John Birch Society, a powerful conservative group claiming that the bulk of the American congress, including President Eisenhower, were communist conspirators. Later the JBS would push the bogus claim that laetrile, a chemical compound found mostly in the seeds of apricots, was a cure for cancer. In 1964, Goldwater was defeated in one of the biggest landslides in American history, and the John Birch Society was forced out of respectable Republican circles
In 2019, Marjorie Taylor Greene voiced support for the theory that the school shooting at Marjorie Stoneman Douglas High School was a “false flag” attack. She also advanced the conspiracy theory that there was a video – though she hadn’t seen it herself because it does not exist – circulating on the “dark web” of Hillary Clinton cutting off a young girl’s face and wearing it herself as a mask while drinking that young girl’s blood. In November of 2020, Marjorie Taylor Greene was elected to Congress as a Republican Representative from Georgia.
Much of this, of course, stems from Donald Trump who was the biggest source of disinformation and conspiracy theories in the world. Disinformation about COVID-19 is estimated to have declined by 73% on Twitter since Trump had his account disconnected by the platform. And so now may be the perfect time to strike. If genuine science and fact can flood the internet at the same pace as false stories can be spread by trolls, then perhaps we have a chance to stem what the WHO calls a “global infodemic”.
It’s an uphill battle, but it is one that must be waged. Dr. Stea and his colleagues are ready to take it on – and they’re in it for the long haul.
We kick off Psychology Month 2021, Psychology And COVID, with a profile of Dr. Steven Taylor. Dr. Taylor’s book ‘The Psychology of Pandemics: Preparing for the Next Global Outbreak of Infectious Disease’ was published in October of 2019
“I knew a pandemic was coming, we all did. But I didn’t think it would be quite so soon.”
When Dr. Steven Taylor says “we all” knew a pandemic was coming, he means infectious disease experts, world health authorities, epidemiologists and mathematical modelers - and psychologists like him, who work in this space. He does not mean the rest of us – the general public who were, for the most part, blissfully unaware that such a global disaster was looming. Those of us who thought of pandemics and epidemics as something that devastated one part of the world while staying mostly contained to that region. Ebola, SARS, H1N1 – we’ve lived through those and, as regular Canadians, they haven’t changed our lives a whole lot.
This time, the pandemic has changed our lives. And although he saw it coming, Dr. Taylor was not exempt from the disruption. Of course clinical work, teaching, research, and interviews have all been moved online. This is something for which Dr. Taylor’s unit was better prepared than some others – but it is his leisure time passion that may have taken the biggest hit. He loves scuba diving and super-macro photography. In December, when news of the pandemic first broke in Wuhan, he was in the Galapagos taking extreme close-up portrait photos of colourful sea slugs and other marine life. Thankfully, there is some interesting marine life to photograph off the coast of BC, but those opportunities are understandably fewer and farther between than they once were.
Dr. Taylor’s initial publisher was one of us regular people in the sense that they thought of a global pandemic as an ethereal, far-off concept. When he wrote his book The Psychology of Pandemics: Preparing for the Next Global Outbreak of Infectious Disease, his American publisher rejected it. Who wants to hear about some unlikely hypothetical catastrophe anyway? Thankfully, a second publisher thought there was some value there and agreed to publish the book. It came out in October. Of 2019.
It is the first comprehensive look at the psychology behind every aspect of a pandemic. The initial public response. Panic buying. Conspiracy theories and xenophobia. Adherence to, or refusal to follow, public health guidelines.
“What really surprised me was that all the phenomena that had been described previously unfolded almost like clockwork throughout 2020. It’s one thing to synthesize the historical literature and say X, Y, and Z are what happens – it’s a completely different thing to see those things happening in real time. That’s the astonishing thing for me – that everything that has happened before is happening during this pandemic, except on a grander scale and faster.”
Dr. Taylor points to the 24-hour news cycle, social media, and the fact that we are all digitally interconnected as the reasons for the acceleration in behaviours humanity has seen before. There was a major backlash against a public mandate to wear masks back in 1918 during the so-called ‘Spanish Flu’ outbreak. There were conspiracy theories during a Zika virus epidemic a few years ago that never really went away, and are being recycled today as the conspiracy theories we see pop up on our Facebook timelines related to COVID. All that was old is new again.
“There’s a very interesting article from the New York Times in 1918 where they cited one of the health authorities. He thought there was some credence to the theory that the ‘Spanish Flu’ was being caused by German U-Boat submariners coming to shore in Manhattan, getting out of their U-Boats, and going into cinemas to spread germs.”
It is stories like this, and interviews with epidemiologists and disease modelers, that convinced Dr. Taylor that The Psychology of Pandemics was an important endeavour. Those interviews, and those stories, resurfaced in 2018 with the centenary of the 1918 flu pandemic. As he absorbed those stories he realized that a plurality of infectious disease experts believed that there would be a global pandemic within the decade. And that it would be a flu, likely caused by a corona virus. Dr. Taylor also recognized that there was a surprising lack of psychological literature on the subject.
“It’s all psychological. Psychology is essential to the spread of these diseases – that is, people choosing to travel – and also essential to containment, because all containment measures require people to do agree to do stuff. Agree to wash your hands, to cover your cough, to get vaccinated, to wear a mask, to maintain physical distancing.”
Dr. Taylor and his team have, of course, been staggeringly busy since the first mention of the virus in Wuhan, and have been studying the psychology of COVID-19, specifically, since December. They have published 6 or 8 papers, and have another 5 or 6 under review (it’s tough to remember exact numbers when you’re doing so many!)
“There has been more research conducted on pandemics in the past 12 months than has been conducted for all other pandemics in the history of human existence.”
There is now enough material for a second Psychology of Pandemics book, describing how all the phenomena we see are interconnected. From vaccination non-adherence, to mask rebellion, to disregard for distancing, to COVID-related emotional distress, excess alcohol consumption, and general coping during lockdown. None of which is particularly new, but all of which has a new context and better data and can build on the historical findings laid out in the first volume.
Dr. Taylor believes that people are resilient, and that we are not going to be wearing masks for the rest of our lives or becoming germophobes. We will one day get back to doing the things we love to do, even though that is likely to come too late for him to take his scheduled scuba diving trip in South Africa in June.
There will, however, be another global pandemic. Hopefully it is decades away, and not two months after the release of Volume 2 of The Psychology of Pandemics. But when it does arrive, we will be better equipped, as global citizens, to handle it. We’ll be more prepared thanks to the work Dr. Taylor did putting together the historical information last year, and the work he and his team are doing to learn everything they can this year.
Will the follow-up book be called The Psychology of Pandemics Volume Two: I Told You So? Almost certainly not. But it could be.