SMC psychology panel provides pandemic perspective

Published 12:58 pm Monday, April 19, 2021

DOWAGIAC — On April 13, Southwestern Michigan College’s Psychology Club and Psi Beta, the national community college honor society provided a hopeful pandemic perspective with a virtual panel discussion on Zoom.

Moderated by Virginia Martynowicz, president of both student organizations, Assistant Psychology Professor Christy Tidd, panelists Heather Zile, Melissa Brewster and Dr. Dennis Rodriguez and students discussed the effects of COVID-19 on our brains, education and overall well-being.

While even introverts have had enough isolation, 2020 provided a gift of time to learn to bake bread, or to garden, or for families to get reacquainted.

“Even when there’s nothing else, we always have hope,” Tidd said. “If we skip through life with rainbows and butterflies and nothing but sunshine along our path, we lose an opportunity. It is only when we meet challenges that we gain resiliency. This has been an opportunity many of us will possibly never see again. It forced us to slow down and threw time in our laps. In psychology you learn about the mind-body connection. Our thoughts and feelings affect us physically. There is good in every day. Focus on three things that went well and your mind will rewire itself.”

Zile, SMC director of community and educational partnerships and a longtime educator, including preschool, college and future teachers, said, “I’m navigating this new way of learning in my own home with my children and as a professional working for an educational institution. One word comes to mind during and after a pandemic — uncertainty. In enrollment, they’re pausing more than normal and considering doing things that maybe they hadn’t a year ago, even though the need for an educated workforce is not going to change. We’re building new infrastructures that are more innovative than had been considered. Instead of returning to normal, we’re developing a new normal. While there’s uncertainty, students give greater consideration for the decisions they make. They’re taking more personal ownership for their journey. That’s a good thing.”

Rodriguez, Indiana University South Bend psychology professor, said two words that come to mind are resilience and adaptability.

“We have collectively risen to the challenge of the uncertainty we’ve been dealing with this past year and have proven to ourselves and to others that the situation sucks, but we are going to come together and make the best of it,” he said. “Therapy sessions devoted to depression or anxiety have really gone up across the board. They mimic quite a bit people with Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD), a mood disorder where symptoms of fatigue, depression, hopelessness and social withdrawal occur in climates with less sunlight.”

Rodriguez referred to Harry Harlow’s social isolation experiments on rhesus monkeys, manifesting the importance of caregiving and companionship to social and cognitive development.


“We know humans have an inherent need to not only verbally express our affections for others, but also to physically show that affection,” he said. “In Latin America, we greet each other with a kiss on the cheek, so my culture is really suffering. We introverts don’t like being told we have to be isolated, we like choosing to be isolated. I agree with Heather that the internet opened a multitude of possibilities we previously hadn’t considered. I am now more likely to engage in family Zoom meetings. Positives are coming out of this, from education to social circles. It’s a shame it came at such a cost. As an introvert, it pains me to admit, but I miss hanging out with people.”

Brewster is a nationally-certified mental health counselor and addiction behavior consultant.

“I hear from parents that they’re struggling because things have changed so much,” he said. “They don’t know how math is done, then have to become the teachers. We can do Zoom therapy sessions. We’re dealing with more agoraphobia.”

“The fear of the unknown, what the future holds, is such a huge question,” Brewster said. “Trying to normalize and validate feelings and thoughts. We’re all in this together. Nobody is not experiencing some kind of difficulty. Your home and work lives are not separate with your office in the basement or a bedroom, but I’ve seen a lot of families come together. I encouraged a client diagnosed with COVID to journal because she’s literally living history in the moment. She’s a COVID victim, but becoming a survivor by sharing her story.”

“Collectivist countries, like South Korea, rather than individualistic countries, like America, are really seeing a rise in negative mental health,” observed Tristan Caldwell, a graduate of Lakeshore High School, Stevensville. “For example, in South Korea, suicide and self-harm rates were already high, but now they have increased about 54 percent. This pandemic affects everyone, regardless of background.”

Caldwell, who plans to transfer to Michigan State University for psychology and global and international studies, is teaching herself six languages — Kazakh, most recently.