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Stephanie Fryberg


An Unprecedented Time for SPSSI: April 27, 2020

Stephanie Fryberg, SPSSI President, Professor of Psychology, University of Michigan

What I love about SPSSI is that we are a community who cares. This year I planned to use my presidency to shed light on groups that often go overlooked or are invisible (e.g., murdered and missing Indigenous, Black, and Latinx Women and Girls, and LGBTQ individuals) in society and in psychological research. I never imagined that a pandemic would disrupt our daily lives and change so many of our plans; that SPSSI would cancel the in-person conference and other in-person events; that we would defer our Marshall Fellow and summer internships for a year; and that we would potentially go years before seeing one another in person. While there is certainly much to grieve, we cannot become complacent. There has never been a more important time to stay connected and to keep fighting for social justice and equity issues. 

The disruption and loss created by COVID-19 is surreal. On this day, around the world, more than 3 million people are infected and there are 208,000 deaths. These numbers are staggering, yet there is mounting evidence that the actual numbers are much higher and that these numbers obscure massive racial, socioeconomic, and geographic inequities. People are being asked to shelter-in-place, self-monitor their health, access healthcare when necessary, and take precautions when out in public (e.g., use masks, gloves, and hand sanitizer; follow social distancing protocols). Yet many people (e.g., homeless populations; low-income, immigrant, and multi-family homes; prisoners) do not have access to these essential health protections. Within the U.S., for example, people of color and low-income people who are less likely to have access to quality healthcare are exponentially more likely to become infected and to die from COVID-19. When we consider the consequences of this reality for society at large and for the most vulnerable and historically oppressed members of society in particular, we—as an organization dedicated to using science for the public good—need to be vigilant in the fight for social justice and equity both in our local, national, and global communities.  

The psychological toll of the COVID-19 pandemic also cannot be minimized. Many people are experiencing high levels of existential angst, depression, stress, and anxiety. Coping with these feelings requires finding structure, maintaining social connections, and taking time to care for family and self. The issue is not simply connecting with close others, but taking time to collectively process this new reality. In my tribal community, we lost a beloved tribal member. Under normal circumstances, hundreds of tribal members would gather to walk with her and her immediate family on her final journey, to collectively celebrate her life, and to process what this loss means to our community. Instead, the normal five days of ceremony were reduced to her immediate family standing outside the cemetery as her casket was lowered into the ground. This loss sent my life into a spiral as I considered the enormity of how our world changed. I know that I am not alone in these feelings or in the need to both grieve for those lost to the virus and for the sense of normal that has been stripped from our daily lives. Taking stock of these feelings and sharing them with the one another is one way that we can reclaim our humanity and walk through this unprecedented time together.  

COVID-19 has literally reshaped everyday life in unimaginable ways—in ways many of us only encounter in science fiction movies and books. To imagine a world where children are educated online or not at all, when their families lack internet access; where children cannot play in parks or with their friends; where college students are asked to leave campus and to complete their coursework online (again, if they have access to quality internet access); where birthdays, graduations, and holidays are reduced to Zoom or Facebook events; where research labs are shut down and psychological studies are limited to online, socially distant research methods; and where opportunities to gather as families and communities are outlawed.  

This seems unimaginable. Yet, for many people in the world, this does not begin to capture the physical or psychological costs of COVID-19. Children and adults are sheltered-in-place with abusive family members; millions of people are unemployed and struggling to keep a roof over their head and food on the table; and around the world people of Asian descent fear for their safety because their group is being unjustly blamed for the pandemic. These COVID-19 related social issues are central to the work SPSSI members do.  We cannot sit idly by waiting for the world to return to normal. We must hold politicians and leaders accountable for the policies, practices, and institutions they endorse, work to shape the new normal, and give voice to those who are otherwise rendered invisible. 

Yes, this time in our lives is unprecedented, but Martin Luther King Jr. once said that the measure of a person is not where we stand in moments of comfort and convenience, but where we stand at times of challenge and controversy. As we wake each day in this surreal new reality, take a moment to see in yourself and in those around you, acts of resilience, kindness, and adaptability. Reach out, not just to your friends and family, but to those in your local, national, and global community who need a hand, a plate of food, and/or a proverbial shoulder to lean on. This is not simply the world we live in now, it is the world future generations of our children will inherit. This is a time for the SPSSI community to support one another, share our resources, and stand as one for social justice and equity because we are a community that cares. Thank you for being part of our SPSSI community. 

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