Ke Xu, MD, PhD, began to experience trauma surrounding the global COVID-19 pandemic in early January, when the first cluster of cases were reported in Wuhan in her native China.
Xu, Associate Professor of Psychiatry at Yale School of Medicine and a graduate of the Yale Psychiatry Residency Program, said she was shocked at how quickly the virus spread not only through China, but throughout the world, including to the United States.
“I felt like there were lots of very strong emotions and stress,” Xu said. “I thought it would be helpful to have a platform where people could process their emotions.”
Inspired by the Yale Department of Psychiatry’s Stress and Resilience Town Hall Program, Xu started her own Zoom-based town hall platform for people with connections to China. She named it “Building Resilience in the Chinese Community – A Path to Survive, Learn, and Grow.” It meets on Saturday nights.
The first call on April 4 drew 67 people from around the world, including China, Europe, California, New York and Yale. The topic was “Stress and Resilience, Coping as Ordinary People.” Xu led off the discussion, and when she stopped talking callers shared personal stories and challenges they were facing. The session was conducted in Chinese.
“One challenge on everyone’s mind was that they believed they may never be able to go back home (to China),” Xu said. “People talked about lost jobs, losing control, and confusion about the world.”
The second session on April 11 touched on the grieving process and recovery, while sessions on April 18 and 25 will feature discussion around helping and connecting with peers who are struggling, and how people of different cultures are reacting to COVID-19, respectively.
Xu works at the VA Connecticut Healthcare System in West Haven where she helps veterans who are experiencing posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD). She is not trained as a disaster psychologist however she has had experience helping people in China cope with disaster and loss, including in 2008 after a powerful earthquake killed 69,000 people and left an estimated 4.8 million people homeless.
Xu, who trained as a psychiatrist in Guangzhou Psychiatric Hospital in China before coming to the U.S., was a first-year psychiatry resident at Yale when the earthquake occurred. She and Dr. Heather Goff, a former faculty member in the department, returned to China to train teachers in how to help students process the emotions of losing their schools and family members. “I felt like students, when they eventually went back to school, could have psychological challenges,” Xu said.
She said she was fortunate that faculty in the Department of Psychiatry at Yale, including Drs. Steven Southwick, Steven Marans, and Robert Rohrbaugh, helped her create the psychological first aid program. Memories of that experience came flooding back in January when the virus broke out in Wuhan and she saw how helpless people in China were to stop it.
The Zoom calls will continue as long as people have a need to express their feelings and seek help for their suffering, Xu said. “People are really desperate to get help,” she said. “I feel like this platform can be helpful. It’s a place where people can connect with each other, and this is a time when we have to connect.”