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Dr. Robert Gordon ’86F Offers an Existential-Humanistic Approach to COVID-19

Dr. Robert Gordon

Dr. Robert Gordon ’86F is Director of Intern Training and Associate Director of Postdoctoral Fellow Training at Rusk Rehabilitation and Clinical Associate Professor at New York University Grossman School of Medicine, and in that capacity, he has trained many psychology interns at the Ferkauf Graduate School of Psychology. He has also been a member of Ferkauf’s board of overseers since 2005 and adds his vital voice to the school’s continuing evolution of its diverse educational programs in multiple modalities. “One of Ferkauf’s great strengths,” he noted, “is its interdependent training in the all different schools of thought in psychology, like cognitive behavioral and psychodynamic approaches taken at the same time, along with a very strong testing training program in neuropsychological testing.”

Recently, he teamed up with seven writers, three of them Ferkauf alums (Dr. Jacqueline Fine Dahan ’06F, Dr. Yuen Shan Christine Lee ’12F, Dr. Lucia Smith-Wexler ’13F, Dr. Joanna Wolfson, Dr. Erin Fults, Dr. Taylor Liberta and Dr. Jed McGiffin), to write an article for the Journal of Humanistic Psychology titled “Existential–Humanistic and Relational Psychotherapy During COVID-19 With Patients With Preexisting Medical Conditions.” Through the presentation of five vignettes, the co-authors “explore risk and reliance factors relevant to patients with preexisting medical conditions during COVID-19 and highlight the benefits of exploring values, priorities, and assumptions, asking open-ended questions about meaning in life and post-traumatic growth, learning for each emotion, and interpretation of dreams.”

Both professional and personal circumstances prompted him to compose the piece. “Over the past couple of years, I’ve immersed myself in the existential humanistic literature while also continuing my learning in relational psychoanalysis, and I’ve long wanted to integrate these two passions of mine.” The quarantine regime enforced by COVID-19 “meant that I was home a lot, which gave me time to think about what is most important in life, what is the meaning of life. These questions were also coming up in my therapy sessions and in the supervision of my trainees. I wanted to write an article that not only helped me cope with my own anxieties but also gave people practical tools to help them navigate what was going on in terms of the pandemic—to have an impact on other psychologists and mental health professionals, yes, but also something that was more than theoretical.”

Each of the five case vignettes highlights the complexities and clinical challenges of working with patients with preexisting medical and/or neurological conditions during the COVID-19 pandemic. These patients include a young actor who changed his values and priorities through his recovery from a mild traumatic brain injury; a monolingual, immigrant Latino male who was receiving individual psychotherapy in Spanish for anxiety in the context of a disorder of the ear; an Asian woman in her late 20s who sustained a concussion secondary to a fall six months prior to initiating treatment; a patient with a severe chronic lung condition who went into rehabilitation treatment after noticing cognitive changes related to his medical status; and a woman’s journey through infertility and multiple in vitro fertilization treatments.

“In each of these cases, the discussion eventually comes around to reflecting upon how the pandemic may have changed them in positive, unexpected ways,” he observed. “I also wanted the same thing to happen with the professionals overwhelmed with their anxiety who read the article, that they would find in our words ways of expressing their concerns with practical questions that prompted them to ask themselves how they could grow from what was going on.”

What did he learn about himself in this process? “That’s a good question,” he noted. “I learned that I have always had a lot of passion for this kind of approach because I have clearly been thinking about these issues for many years and always enjoyed reading existential literature, even going back to college, with writers like Sartre or Camus and especially Victor Frankl.” He observed that the “core of any therapy is the individual’s search for meaning and purpose in life, and this article helped me solidify some things that were always there but perhaps not carefully articulated or thought out.”