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Psychology Without Borders: Providing Hope and Healing in the Face of Adversity

Academic Festival Session 2013

Adversity takes many forms: disaster, conflict, ill health, family crisis, crime and so much more. Helping people cope, adjust and recover from adversity is a major interest in psychology and related fields that are well represented at TC. An Academic Festival panel on “Psychology Without Borders” presented ways in which new research is shaping more effective ways of helping people and communities in all cultures weather the emotional and psychological effects of crisis.

Through 10 years of research in AIDS-ravaged areas of southern Uganda, Lena Verdeli, Associate Professor of Psychology and Education, found that a form of group therapy led by trained community members could significantly reduce the paralyzing depression that was afflicting many people. 

“We started with an ethnographic assessment, to understand local idioms of distress,” Verdeli said, adding that local traditional healers had to sanction the project. The protocols of interpersonal therapy also needed modifying, to recognize age, gender and other roles in the local society.

The findings –that people in therapy developed more hope for the future, became more productive in their agricultural labor, and were more willing to pay school fees for their children – exceeded Verdeli’s expectations. She had been worried at the outset, she says: “Who are we to intervene? Is this colonial? Shouldn’t we be addressing poverty and war instead? Can we really do a rigorous trial?” Instead she came away with a very different conclusion: “No mental health, no development.”

Full session


Claudia Cohen, TC Lecturer and Associate Director of the International Center for Cooperation and Conflict Resolution (ICCCR), described work that the ICCCR is doing with the Fortune Academy, in Harlem, which provides wraparound support to formerly incarcerated individuals.  Here too, careful attention to the setting is crucial, Cohen said. Along with such techniques as careful listening and separating the problem from the person, understanding conflict styles and the way conflict gets expressed in different cultures – even those within neighborhoods or schools -- is a step toward resolving and preventing it.

“We’re working with them to allow people who come from cultures of violence to learn skills of non-violence,” Cohen said. Integral part of the project is to form a community of shared learning between TC, the academy, and its clients.

Conflict does not always have to end up in destruction, Cohen said. As if to echo this, George Bonanno, Professor of Psychology and Education and Professor of Clinical Psychology, shared key findings of his long-standing program of research on resilience. “Bad things” happen frequently, Bonanno said, and what is remarkable is how often we weather them. “Over the course of a life span, almost everyone faces the death of loved ones, and most people are exposed to one or several violent or life-threatening events. They can be devastating and disturbing, but we often survive them quite well.”

George bonnano


People affected by a particular event or type of adversity typically display one of three response patterns, Bonanno said. One is a chronic, severe adverse effect; another is an adverse effect that gradually decreases over time; and the third is a lesser effect that never becomes severe. That third, “minimal-impact, resilient outcome” typically describes a majority of the affected population, and sometimes up to two-thirds.

So what explains resilience? There is no simple explanation, Bonanno said. “Resilience is not informed by one or two things. There are likely many different routes to the same end.”

Published Tuesday, Apr. 23, 2013


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