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Through writing, a psychologist extends her reach

Yale Medicine Magazine, 2017 - Winter


In the summer of 2000, Joan M. Cook, Ph.D., her degree in clinical psychology just a year old, rounded up 15 of her oldest, most vulnerable patients in San José, Calif.— former prisoners of war who had survived German and Japanese prison camps during World War II. She put them in a van and drove north.

“They had waited for years to get services for PTSD, and they had experienced horrific things. My patients told me that in the camps, the [Japanese] beheaded prisoners who tried to escape and put their heads on the fence post to deter others from doing the same. My patients saw this,” said Cook, an associate professor of psychiatry.

Tired of watching her patients wait for disability compensation for their PTSD, she drove them that day to the Oakland Veterans Administration (VA) Regional Benefit Office, where their claims were processed.

Before marriage and children, Cook felt freer to engage in this sort of advocacy. Today, the trauma specialist sees fewer patients—most are in a VA residential PTSD program—but by all measures, her reach is far greater. Since October, Cook has published 23 op-eds in TIME, Ms. magazine, USA Today, and on CNN. Written during Cook’s tenure as a Public Voices Fellow in The OpEd Project, the pieces look at contemporary atrocities—terrorism, mass shootings, campus rapes, sexual abuse in the Catholic Church, police brutality—through the lens of trauma psychology. “With all this horrible stuff happening in the world, I’m trying to help people tap into their resiliency and hopefulness,” Cook said.

While her field emphasizes publication in peer-reviewed academic journals, Cook wanted to reach those who could benefit from a psychologist’s perspective. Several years ago, she started writing for lay readers and sending unsolicited pieces to The New York Times and The Washington Post. Her queries met with frustrating silence. That’s when a friend told her about The OpEd Project.

Founded in 2008, the nationwide project aims to give voice to underrepresented thought leaders, particularly women. Each year the Women Faculty Forum at Yale sponsors 20 faculty members who work with journalist mentors who help them craft and publish opinion pieces. More than three dozen faculty members in medicine, nursing, and public health at Yale have participated in the program since 2011.

When she got the fellowship for the 2015-2016 academic year, Cook said, “I felt like the stars had aligned for me. I had always wanted to do this, and here were people saying they were going to help me do it.”

Of her published pieces, one stands out most for her—an essay printed in Pacific Standard last February titled, “From ‘Spotlight’ to Academic Conferences: How Can We Better Serve Male Survivors?” As the president of the American Psychological Association’s (APA) Division of Trauma Psychology, Cook had attempted to organize a presentation on male sexual abuse for APA’s annual conference. But she couldn’t find another division to co-sponsor the presentation. For Cook, this was confirmation of stigma and taboo surrounding male sexual abuse that extended even to health professionals. Taking to the page, she tied the piece to the film Spotlight, about The Boston Globe reporters who broke the story of the nearly 90 priests who had abused children, mostly boys.

Calling on churches and health care providers alike not to turn their backs on male survivors, Cook writes, “We need institutional support so more men can come forward and receive the attention and care they need and deserve.”

After the essay was published, Walter V. Robinson, The Boston Globe investigative reporter who led the coverage of the scandal, sent her an email. “He said, ‘Your Pacific Standard piece came into my inbox. It was excellent and illuminating.’” Cook, who printed and framed Robinson’s email, was over the moon to receive this type of feedback from the man who put the issue on the map.

Cook continues to chase research funding and publication in peer-reviewed journals. And when her kids—a 9-year-old girl and 4-year-old twin boys—are a little older, she’ll take on more patients (though she probably won’t shuttle them to the VA in a rented van). But writing for the public fulfills a need that other professional activities do not. “I feel very constrained by what I can say in academic writing. With the op-eds, I can have an opinion; I can extrapolate from the data, use my clinical experience and my intuition. I feel like someone’s freed me.”