Adaptability in Education and Mental Health with Ryan Michelsen | the Robert Benson Interview Series
This interview’s conversation is with Ryan Michelsen. Michelsen is an adjunct faculty member in the Criminology program at DePaul University. He holds a PhD in Criminal Justice from Michigan State University. Along with teaching undergraduates, he is also p
Thank you for joining us, let's head into the Dialogue.
Robert Benson: So with regard to post-pandemic adaptability: again here, the thought is, we do have a tendency to overemphasize things that we're aware of in the present and then diminish things that we aren't really all that aware of in the future. Just as an example, Henry Ford predicted flying cars in 1940. And his prediction not only was that the technology would be available, but they'd be widespread. And as of noon today, that hasn't happened. And then if you look at ride sharing, nobody would have ever imagined Uber just a few years before it, and certainly not the taxi industry, which has been absolutely decimated by it.
So predicting the future is very difficult. What we're thinking about here though really is just about whatever we get to as a normal. And that normal post-pandemic could be, we revert right back to where we were, there's a couple of things that have changed and unfortunately, some lives lost, but it'll resemble where we were in 2019. The other school of thought is: society's forever changed, and why. And the truth is probably somewhere in the middle, but anyway - so that's the context. into which this conversation happens, specifically with the three questions, the first one being technology. Which technology do you think impacts the most post-pandemic?
Ryan Michelsen: Sure. I think, thinking about this pandemic through the lens of a collective trauma that we're all going through. It really has had a devastating effect on many of us throughout the world, in many aspects of our lives, from education to our careers and our workplaces to our families, to our routines. And also our mental health. And I think one of the components that we'll be looking at as it relates to technology moving forward is increased accessibility. There is certainly an increasing number of options for telehealth that have come about, and that has really added accessibility and added - at some levels - convenience for an increasing need that has happened because of this pandemic.
I would imagine that most healthcare workers and especially mental health care workers - counselors, therapists, et cetera - probably would not have been as excited about thinking about telehealth without this pandemic to help grease the wheel with that. And that has really allowed people to access services who may never have done that before. Because you don't have to spend travel time to and from an office et cetera, et cetera. And you really have the ability to see that play out right now.
How that looks years down the road? I would imagine some of them - the technology that telehealth systems are used by mental health care practitioners will be maintained. Some people will still come back into the office for some of those appointments and meetings. But I think we'll see increased services to folks because of telehealth, they can pack it into their schedules a little bit more tightly and be able to get that work done.
RB: How do you feel about the - well, I have a two part question. And the first is accessibility to the internet. We've learned in this pandemic that it has deepened the divide between the people who have broadband access and can shift to work-from-home situations and the people who do not I'm reminded of the sort of situation where the two girls went to Taco Bell and were in their parking lot, trying to get internet access at the beginning of the pandemic to study for school, they were in elementary school. Second part of the question is in terms of mental health, there's a horrific article in the New York Times this weekend about Las Vegas - Clark County has had double of the suicides for kids in school than they did the previous year.
And they - it's hard to pin it on the pandemic, but they believe the isolation is a contributor. And what kind of an impact, - they had a nine year old, several nine to 12 year olds who were unfortunately taking their lives. Where do you see the telehealth fitting into that situation?
RM: Sure. First, I think that internet accessibility is really important, and it's important for us to think, especially when we think about marginalized populations who may have differential access to a lot of resources and opportunities - whether they're economic, structural, or in cases like this, access to school or mental health care, or what have you. I think it really has shown us how big of a divide there is and how much inequity there is not only in our local communities, but our national ones as well. I think that certainly is motivation at the community level to make change and push for social justice actions that can provide equitable access to internet for all folks, regardless of where they may live or what they may be experiencing.
At this point in time, I feel that internet access is just a basic need, like water and heat and food. And so I think that you know, when we think about marginalized populations in our country who may not have access to the internet, we really need to take a look at that, whether it's through public policy or something that we are doing at a community level, to make sure that folks have access to that so that they can get education, get healthcare, what have you.
The other part of it, I think, certainly is a sobering reality that access to Zoom or what have you -children are on camera and are doing - accessing that through school. And it really does show a window into the world of what they may or may not be experiencing. And unfortunately, suicide is something that, is a tremendously, seriously, serious issue, especially for people who may not have access to the resources to get help for that. I do think that as we consider the effects of this pandemic and how it has really affected folks, I think we're going to see people needing to access mental health care services in greater numbers.
Certainly we know risk factors for anxiety, depression. Suicidal ideation certainly comes along and is sometimes packaged with those as well. And we're going to need to make sure that people who especially are more isolated - maybe it's our children who are sitting in front of a computer instead of in a classroom and getting that social stimulation that they're going to have, we need to make sure as a community that they have access to the resources they need.
RB: Do you think that therapy, or counseling, is effective in this sort of a format as in-person, is it better or worse? What do you think the sort of differences are?
RM: My understanding is that it can be pretty effective for people. Certainly people have their preferences. Some people like the more organic, face-to-face in-person, type of opportunity. And I think a lot of people through this pandemic have really learned to shift towards this type of telehealth setting so that they can have access to sources. I think there is some personal preferences associated with it, but I also think that we're starting to learn that there are more resources available for people when we access telehealth services and the results can be pretty promising as well.
RB: I was thinking in terms of body language. If you're giving therapy to somebody or counseling somebody, how important is it to see their body or how their hands move, or how they're fidgeting or anything like that, that may not be visible depending on the position of the camera.
RM: I think you bring up a really good point. And I think certainly not being able to see some of those markers of anxiety or other ways that symptoms present themselves can certainly be a block for therapists who are trying to care for their clients. I think that that is something that is definitely a challenge, and hard to work through in many ways.
So it might be that therapists, as they adapt to tele-health - some have been using it previously, anyway - therapists also are used to, at times, accessing clients via telephone. So there are ways around it and therapists do have a way to, if they know they need to watch for certain types of behaviors or symptoms, to be able to ask for some of that.
RB: Do you have any other any other thoughts on technology? I think that was pretty, pretty good. You know, increasing accessibility, having more people, doing more things online, that makes a ton of sense. Certainly, telehealth was something that was on its way before the pandemic, I agree completely that it's going to exponentially increase. Any other thoughts?
RM: I think also, switching to an educational side of it for a moment - I think that we do have, although online platforms for higher education haven't been available in the past, it has not been almost mandated like the way it is now. And so this pandemic has made colleges and universities have to figure it out, how to provide online and hybrid courses. And so in the spring, it was a bit of a scramble for many universities, trying to figure out how to put their courses online and they figured out that they can do it. Certainly, it's not always easy. And alongside that, I think a lot of students have realized that they can do it and that they can log on and get their classwork done and still learn, in different ways than they may have expected.
And so I think one of the benefits of this is that it's going to create an equity piece for education. And so it might mean that people who may not have considered taking that course at a certain college or university, because it's 40 miles away from their home, and they didn't have time after work because they didn't have the time to travel. Maybe they're raising a couple of kids, maybe they're working two jobs. Now they have the opportunity to get home from work and they just sit down in front of their computer and they can do their courses either sometimes asynchronously - they do the work on their own time - or maybe they do it synchronously, where they meet up with their classmates over Zoom or some other platform and get that work done.
So I think it really does help with some of those equity pieces - not everyone has the ability to, go to school full-time without working and live on campus. That is one route for higher education. But another one is that people work and have other obligations. And I think that having online classes really helps to do make that a more equitable situation.
RB: How do you feel about collaboration online? You know, as higher education shifts to an online format or there are hybrid modalities? I think I understand, if I'm taking Ryan's masterclass, on criminology, for instance - I can definitely learn a ton from you - but if there are four or five others doing it, how does that work? Or do you think that's still a work in process?
RM: I think that is a work in progress. And I know for myself as an educator, I had to - during the pandemic was the first time I had taught online. I had always taught in-person and that worked quite well, but I had to figure it out pretty quickly, how to do it. And it works pretty well. I think some of the ways that it works nicely is that everyone almost has an equal voice in the room because when you're in a Zoom chat situation, everybody has their own box and I have the ability to monitor and see where folks are at any given time. And people are kind of at an equal standing point if they want to raise their hand and ask a question. And I think that's something that I've really valued, is that some of the voices, some of the students who may have been quiet and maybe sat in the back of the classroom, and I really had to find a way to, stimulate discussion with them. I feel like now they have a different way to participate.
Secondly, they can also communicate during the chat, in the chat feature, if they don't feel comfortable, you know, turning the camera on or using their voice, they can do that through typing. And so I feel like I'm starting to see the glimpses of students having a voice who may not have had that in the past, in an in-person situation. But I do think it's based on preference.
RB: Can you imagine a future class where half of the class is in the room with you and half isn't?
RM: I can. I know that some universities are moving to that, where, especially during this pandemic, where the professors are going to campus and standing in a socially-distanced classroom where the students are spread out and the professor is essentially broadcasting to the students who are not present. I have not taken part in that at this point because where I'm teaching, we're still remote. However, I could see that in the future, even if it's not because of the pandemic, but it's just because students may not be able to make it to the classroom. I've also had students on their -they have access on their smartphones to be able to dial into Zoom and listen to class.
And a couple of them, I have noticed at times, have had their phone up on the dashboard of their car. And they're taking a break at work and they're, they've joined class from one of the suburbs, sitting in their car. So it really has created a situation where people have the ability to learn in their own way and in a way that meets their needs.
RB: It's interesting. the asynchrony of that, the idea that I missed half of your class so now I'm going to go home tonight and watch the front half, or I missed the entire thing, or I just want to see it again. What did he really say? All of those questions, if every class is filmed and recorded in the future, it certainly sets up a different - completely different - thought process around the education part. So I think that part's really fascinating, and also makes piles and piles of video that some people never watch again, but still, it's just an interesting opportunity.
How do you feel about social behaviors? We start talking about - I would argue that having taught many, studios myself, in college and been, certainly, a student. I always felt that you learned as much, if not more, from the other students as you ever did the instructor. If the students are remote, what, how do you think that collaboration operates?
RM: I think it takes a lot of work on the instructor's part to build the rapport and build that collaboration within the online classroom setting. I think really what has to be overcome is the - is trust. Trust is often built organically in a classroom setting, and that may be true elsewhere in the world as well as we move about our communities. Trust is important for us as we consider how we interact with one another. And that's true in the classroom as well.
Online, what we essentially have to do is find a way to connect with one another and build that trust. Sometimes I model vulnerability in terms of being the first one to speak or to share, or to open up in a classroom setting. And sometimes just acknowledging that, "hey, this is different. This is uncomfortable. And we'll be okay, we'll work our way through it. And you can participate when you're ready." I do think that it takes a little bit of effort. Sometimes I will do breakout rooms with students so that they have an opportunity to talk one-on-one or in groups of three with other students to build some of that trust, so that the collaboration can happen in an online setting, so that they can learn everything that they need to learn and maybe would have learned in person on campus.
RB: It's interesting, particularly the modeling vulnerability, putting yourself out there so that others feel a little more comfortable to do that. That's - I don't imagine all the professors doing that. You may have an edge over some of the other educators in reaching the students.
What other social behaviors do you think post-pandemic are adapted or changed? You know, because of the pandemic.
RM: Sure. I think - you know, as I teach criminology, I kind of keep an eye on the, the world of crime. And I do think as we go back out into the world, whether we - as the vaccine becomes a little bit more prevalent and available. I do think that we'll really have to contend with the effect that is not known right now of masks. Although they keep us safe and they're certainly a medical device that allows us to stay safe in each other's company, even in a social distance setting. I have a feeling that there is probably some research to be done on the effect of those masks and the anonymity that comes with it in a public space.
And so, you know, there are dreams that are committed - personal and property crimes - on a daily basis, especially in our large cities, such as Chicago, New York, San Francisco, et cetera, et cetera, and other places as well. But in places where we're used to being a little bit more anonymous anyway, because there are so many people densely packed into a large urban area, you add a mask to that and it takes another way - it takes away another layer of identifiability. I live in Chicago and one of the concerns here has been an uptick in carjackings since the pandemic has started.
And I would wonder, and I would imagine there's a criminologist on this at some point who may have access to the data, to figure out whether mask-wearing is an independent variable that really affects the outcome of this and perhaps the increased frequency of victimization there. These are questions to ask and I would be curious to know the answer to that.
RB: Yeah, that's certainly interesting. And I have read about that before where you know, home entries or things like that, it's just a much easier if you're masked up already. You're - there might be some increased bravado. I wouldn't be surprised if that was happening. What other behaviors do you see - do you see any other behaviors changing? Is the handshake dead?
RM: I think it will take us a little bit of time to figure out whether we want to do that or not. I think that we just automatically stick out that hand and assume that the other person doesn't see a risk in shaking our hand and we move on.
We don't - it's almost a reflex behavior, I believe in most situations, for most people. I know I will probably have to think through that before I go back out into the world and consider that. I think that many of those types of behaviors that we're used to like standing close to someone on the train without a mask on might give us pause, if we are riding public transportation, riding the bus et cetera. You mentioned Uber earlier - getting into somebody else's vehicle, sitting in close proximity, I would imagine. Thinking about that trust theme that we were talking about a few minutes ago, I think that we'll have to rebuild some sort of collective trust with one another.
Just as our communities, whether it's in our neighborhoods or our cities, or, more largely as we start to travel, if we want to do international travel, et cetera, we'll have to build back up that trust and think about, do we trust that server to bring us that food at a restaurant or put their hand on that pint of beer before we take a drink out of it? Those types of things, I think, most of us weren't actively thinking about most of the time. I know I was not, and that'll probably be a change in behavior that I would imagine comes after.
RB: Yeah, I'm one of those people - and this is before the pandemic - that whenever I'm looking for a place to sit, it was always a calculus between the light level, the comfort of the seat and the distance to other people. And odds are, I'm prioritizing more space between me and the other people. And certainly on public transit, a hundred percent looking for the most remote location. But that makes me wonder - everybody has a personal space zone. Do you think it's possible that that increases post-pandemic? Or do you think that this is really just something that's in the now, and then human nature is human nature and we'll revert back?
RM: I think it will temporarily increase our social distance from one another. I do notice sometimes people on the sidewalks, as I move about, will move around. And perhaps right now that's a nice safety measure to take into consideration. But those patterns and habits that are often, perhaps, based in a little bit of legitimate anxiety around keeping ourselves safe. Some of that I would imagine would linger for quite some time until we start to unlearn those behaviors that we adopted over the last year. Hard to say almost a year, but our last year of keeping each other safe.
RB: I was wondering if you put your hand out and someone goes (Gestures with elbow) they're uncomfortable with it. That actually might be the thing that triggers the end of the handshake. Cause you might feel really self-conscious by putting your hand out there. And I'm just curious, I'm wonder aloud how that's gonna - how that is going to shake out. And whether it would be okay for, is it okay to be rebuffed for a gesture like that?
RM: I think you bring up a good point, because, if we offer a handshake, it's - we're the person starting that interaction. And if the other person then decides not to take us up on it, it certainly is a situation that most of us haven't encountered prior to the pandemic, I would imagine. I'm sure it happens, but not as frequently. And so, we have to think about those you know, individual relationship skills like how we want to interact with one another and how somebody else might feel, like is it an aggressive move to put your hand out, or is it a friendly, welcoming move?
I think that spirit of it is friendly and welcoming, but now it may be received as being a little bit more aggressive. And so it'll be a little bit more work for all of us as we try to figure out and navigate how we want to connect with one another and share some of those greetings that we took for granted before.
RB: Yeah, I think so. Just slightly different topic: what about the economy, industries, markets. Differences that way, that you can think about in terms of adaptability, post-pandemic?
RM: I think that the one that's on mind my mind the most - earlier I talked about the telehealth portion, but in terms of mental health care, I have a feeling there is going to be a very large increase in the need for mental health care services compared to what we have seen in the past. I think that, because the need is there, you will see more accessibility that comes through telehealth, but then also the treatment of different mental health concerns that maybe more folks were used to dealing with or coping with on their own. This pandemic may have, for many people, pushed their coping skills to the limit, and they need a little bit assistance with that as they navigate the new space.
I also think that some of those spaces are great because people have the ability to rewrite their own narrative for what life is going to be like for them after the pandemic. I think this has been some time where we've all had some change, in some way - some of the changes have been, you know, devastating and others of them have been inconvenient. And most of us have probably experienced a range of that over the last year, and accessibility to these therapeutic spaces really does allow somebody the opportunity to rewrite their narrative and figure out what's next for them. It's a forced opportunity ,in some cases, that this pandemic has made all of us to reconsider what we want our new normal to be. And I think counseling - therapy - can be an important component of helping folks write that narrative.
RB: That's interesting. I have a friend who's moving back to Germany and the friend hasn't been living- is originally a German, but has not been living there in so long, that they had to get private insurance because it's socialized medicine in Germany and the first company, she was all the way through it, rejected her at the last minute because she was taking Zoloft. And that was the only reason. And there was a question on the application that said, "if you are taking anti-depression medicine, you are likely to be rejected". You know, it was shocking to me that there would be a systemic insurance company lane prejudice against a certain treatment for depression. How do you think the increased need, or the increased treatment, or the teletreatment, or the industry in general will impact the stigma that can come along with therapy and treatment?
RM: I can certainly speak to the talk therapy side of it, more so than the medication or the drug portion of it. But I think that, like with anything, the more people who are experiencing something and exposed to something, I think the less of a stigma there may be to it. Mental health care does have, unfortunately, a stigma that has changed over the last few decades - and it's going down, I think, because more people are comfortable talking about it, certainly. I think the internet has provided information to many people who may not have had information before about certain mental health concerns and certainly has normalized some of it because people have the ability to talk with each other.
Even if they don't know anybody in their personal life who has struggled from struggled with a concern, they can reach out and talk to somebody online. And that serves to normalize some of the experiences they're having and therefore reduce some of that stigma. And so I think that we have an opportunity to continue with some of that, because the pandemic really has created a scenario where people are realizing that there's help out there, and they may feel more comfortable to go get it. And I think that's it, that's a good thing.
RB: Yeah. Let's hope so. Any other thoughts on adaptability, economic or otherwise?
RM: I think, I think that's about what I got. I think there's going to be a lot of change. I'll be curious to see what else is there.
RB: No, it's fascinating that there is definitely going to be - there's always change. We were on a pretty steep parabola there, of change. And I think this is just a new influence point, but I do think that there's tremendous opportunity for us to correct things that are going in the wrong direction and and, and hopefully create a better future for everybody. And that's kinda why I'm doing this, I'm hoping that we can get people thinking about it in advance and hopefully supporting change in a positive way and stop the petty arguments and BS that we've have been watching unfold on a weekly basis.
Anyway, I can't thank you enough.
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