A great deal of advice has been dispensed on how to cope with life in the time of COVID — and that, says Lena Verdeli, Associate Professor of Psychology & Education and Director of TC’s Global Mental Health Lab, may be part of the problem.
Over the past decade, Verdeli has emerged as the world’s leading authority on culturally adapting and disseminating interpersonal psychotherapy (IPT), a treatment for debilitating depression, in low-resource regions. [Read a story on the efforts of Verdeli and the Global Mental Health Lab to help Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh.] In her studies IPT was implemented by psychologists and laypeople alike in some of the world’s most challenging locations — including Lebanon, which has absorbed a vast refugee population from neighboring Syria; Bangladesh, where more than a million Rohingya refugees have fled a state-sanctioned genocide in Myanmar; and Uganda, where hundreds of thousands of people were displaced by armed conflict. At the heart of her work is an emphasis on restoring a sense of personal agency among people who have been made to feel powerless by social or environmental forces, including catastrophic events — an approach she believes is especially relevant during the COVID pandemic.
We need to be clear not to convey the message that people always need guidelines and webinars and that there’s a right way to adjust to this. It’s very important to strengthen the person’s ability for self-efficacy, especially now, and to trust that they can activate their own mental health immune system to survive.
—Lena Verdeli, Associate Professor of Psychology & Education
“We need to be clear not to convey the message that people always need guidelines and webinars and that there’s a right way to adjust to this,” she says. “It’s very important to strengthen the person’s ability for self-efficacy, especially now, and to trust that they can activate their own mental health immune system to survive. Survival of humans, or any organism for that matter, depends on the ability to adapt to new and challenging circumstances. In the beginning of the pandemic we were all flooded with expert advice on the ‘right way’ to adapt. However, I believe that instead of drilling people on what they need to do — meditate, exercise, watch the news, don’t watch the news — we need to assist them in observing their own processes and asking: What and who helps me? What is my unique way of dealing with things? How have I dealt with severe crises in the past, and how can I draw on that now? What skills, support, and resources do I need in order to adapt to all these changes, the unknown, and the isolation? What is my way of being helpful to others? The answers depend on a number of factors such as the person’s history, age, temperament, social capital, resources, etc.”
Verdeli was the lead author of a manual on the use of IPT that is now being dispensed globally, free of charge, by the World Health Organization. For the past few years, she’s also been testing an abbreviated three-session form of the treatment as an engagement strategy for student veterans in New York City and Utah campuses.
The unprecedented nature of the COVID crisis has only strengthened her belief that IPT works.
“It’s especially important for everyone to remember that the COVID pandemic is an extraordinary cascade of events and that the isolation and other precautions it has required is something human cultures have never done before, especially during a crisis, when our instinct is to connect with the community,” she says. “The focus of IPT on losses, conflicts, and loneliness make it particularly relevant to the mental health impact of the pandemic. While the severance of ties and perception of threat trigger common distress reactions in people, we also have to keep in mind that people are different — some don’t want to talk about what is happening or look at the news, while others feel more in control when they do that. People need to trust themselves and rely on their own ways, and the role of therapists and mental health professionals should often be to support them in getting in touch with their own strengths and values to effectively manage loss, conflict, and loneliness, instead of aping others. Because in a paradoxical way, and with our best intentions, when we dictate to people what they need to do, we take away self-efficacy, which may be the most important tool for getting through this.”