This piece was originally featured on Research Matters.
Azeemah Kola, a Clinical Psychology PhD candidate, has received a 2021-22 Mental Health and Substance Abuse Services Doctoral Fellowship, part of the Minority Fellowship Program of the American Psychological Association (APA). The fellowship will help support her as she completes her doctoral studies, and connect her to a broad network of other psychologists and psychologists-in-training who are specifically focused on working with racial and ethnic minorities.
Kola is broadly interested in how certain groups, particularly those that are marginalized, are perceived in society.
“Thus far, I have been interested in looking at this through the principle of magical contagion, which is the idea that the essence of a person or thing can be transferred through physical contact with an object,” she says. “In my MA thesis, I found that individuals were less likely to want to come into contact with objects that had been previously handled by obese individuals, suggesting that obesity is in fact wrongly viewed as communicable.”
Her dissertation, tentatively titled “Magical Contagion and Psychiatric Disorder,” uses magical contagion to look at the ways in which individuals treat those with psychiatric disorders. “Specifically, I am interested in understanding whether, and why, mental illness in particular may be seen as communicable, whether consciously or unconsciously, and whether this differs depending on the type of psychiatric disorder,” Kola shares. Her dissertation advisor is McWelling Todman, Professor of Clinical Practice.
Understanding exactly what conditions underlie stigma around mental health has a number of potential policy and practical applications, especially where attitudes toward mental health intersect with other issues, e.g. providing safe housing and support for unhoused populations, or dealing with mass trauma from catastrophic events like the COVID-19 pandemic. In many cases, mental health stigma and attitudes towards the individual may involve compounding prejudice, where biases and irrational beliefs about mental health collide with prejudices about race, ethnicity, legal status, chronic health conditions, or poverty.
Kola’s clinical interests center on the experiences of people of color. “I am interested in how established therapeutic models may apply (or not apply) cross-culturally, and how therapy that focuses on specific events or experiences may need to respond to or be aware of greater structural and systemic experiences of racism and inequality,” she says. This year, as an extern in the PTSD Clinic at the Brooklyn VA Medical Center, she is starting and co-facilitating a Race-Based Stress and Trauma psychotherapy group with her supervisor, also a woman of color. “We hope [this] will provide a space for veterans of color to acknowledge and process the often pervasive and repeated traumas of racism,” she shares.
“I felt incredibly fortunate [to receive this APA fellowship], not least because I felt empowered by the fellowship committee believing in my research, clinical focus, and its importance. I am also deeply grateful to the Psychology department at The New School and my mentors, in particular Dr. Todman, Dr. [Richelle] Allen, and Dr. [Daniel] Gaztambide, for their unwavering and beyond generous support of me and my application,” Kola says.
In addition to her studies, research, and externship, Kola writes a blog for Psychology Today and is a member of the APA’s Task Force on Climate Change, which she joined to help address the disproportionate impact of climate change on already vulnerable and marginalized groups.
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