A psychologist on healthy escapism and what we can learn from superheroes

Drea Letamendi, a clinical psychologist, joined Love Letters columnist Meredith Goldstein for a Q&A about self-care during COVID-19

Drea Letamendi
Drea LetamendiChristina Gandolfo

As I mentioned last week, my Love Letters advice column inbox is a complicated place right now. Date nights, school, and family dinners all happen in the same place. Singles have been alone, in some cases, for weeks.

That’s why I started Taking Care, a weekly series of video Q&As with mental health professionals. You’re welcome to sign up for the next one and watch the previous installments at https://globeevents.splashthat.com.

Our latest episode features a conversation with one of my favorite star psychologists, Drea Letamendi. I’ve long been a fan of Letamendi’s; she works as a mental health adviser at UCLA, but she’s also an expert on psychology and superheroes. She’s long used pop culture and caped crusaders to help her audience (including me) process scary things in our own lives.


Taking Care with Meredith Goldstein featuring Dr. Drea Letamendi
Meredith Goldstein talks to Dr. Drea Letamendi, a licensed clinical psychologist, about how we can stay connected even when we’re apart.

I spoke to Letamendi about what we’re experiencing now. Below is an edited and condensed excerpt of our Q&A, which included questions sent in by readers.

Meredith Goldstein: I want to talk about what we watch for comfort. Our film critic recently said to me that he feels like there are two types of people — the people who want to watch “Contagion” right now, and the people who want literally anything else. Can you explain this?

Drea Letamendi: In general, there is [a] sense of comfort [we get from] narratives that are, for lack of a better word, out of this world. If it’s about science fiction, if it’s about fantasy, healthy escapism is a component here. We’re looking for moments of just detaching from our experience and immersing ourselves in other narratives and stories. Folks that are drawn toward these sort of apocalyptic, doomsday narratives may be looking for a sense of control. There is this uncertainty happening right now, where we’re unable to predict what will happen in the next week, and even in the next couple days. Being associated with a story that has a beginning, middle, and end — that has a closed narrative — might be a way to get a sense of control.


MG: What does it mean to have healthy screen time right now?

DL: A good tip I try to give my clients is to create a routine around breaks from screen time and understand the [context] of your screen time. If some screen time is work related, that’s out of necessity. Some screen time absolutely should be about entertainment, about joy — so that would be watching Netflix or Disney+ or whatever streaming channel we’re watching. And certainly screen time might be about connecting with other people, which is paramount.

MG: What would you say to parents who have always considered screen time to be a bad thing? Can watching TV provide emotional lessons? I was raised on TV, and I believe that many shows taught me a lot about empathy.

DL: I have learned so much about how to manage my emotions through this connection with fictional media. Batman was one of the first fictional characters that introduced me to managing my emotions and learning about people who are different than I am. Specifically, why villains do the things that they do. [It was] eye-opening for me, and ultimately led me to go into psychology. We do find that a fictional story has a healing component, and that as witnesses, we gain a lot in terms of our psychosocial development and how to manage those feelings, how to watch and see other characters manage those feelings, and how to know what those feelings are and better equip ourselves to overcome those feelings.


MG: I know that in your work, you’ve spoken quite a bit about grief. Can you talk about processing grief when it involves strangers and celebrities?

DL: One of the first things I would say is to affirm that [this kind of] grief is real. You may not have ever met that person, but that individual has helped you grow, has inspired you, has created a level of thoughtfulness, a level of emotional growth in some way. And I think especially for artists, musicians, activists, actors — folks that are highly visible in the public eye — when something traumatic happens to those individuals, we do have a real sense of loss. Right before this crisis, we lost Kobe Bryant to an accident. For a lot of different communities, and for Los Angeles in particular, there were days of grieving. Actually, a few clients approached me about this and said, “I feel guilty that I feel this way because I don’t know him. And yet, I feel so lost and I feel so hopeless, and I feel a tremendous sense of sadness.” As you’re talking about this crisis, it is an accumulation of many losses every day, one after the other. And I think that it’s important to acknowledge that this accumulation of loss also has an impact on us.


MG: Since you’re the expert on superheroes, Is there a comic book hero that you connect with and look up to during times of crisis?

DL: Batman. I would say that he is, for me, the most interesting superhero in the sense that he is relatable. He doesn’t have the ability to have X-ray vision or fly. He is like us in that he needs to access his inner resources to make change. To not only help other people, but to secure psychological safety in himself, which he continues to struggle with time after time. He is not necessarily the healthiest figure in comic books, but he certainly does not stop trying. He always gets up. And I think that’s such an interesting narrative, especially right now. One thing that I [think about] is the concept of Batman’s utility belt. He doesn’t have a batarang as his single tool to get out of trouble. He has multiple gadgets and tools that he uses in very strategic ways. Certainly the batarang is useful, but what if he needs a line launcher? What if he needs a grapple hook? Similarly, when I work with clients, we talk about what is in your utility belt? Because I might have something that I like to use, but that may not be as helpful for someone else.

Sign up for the April 9 Taking Care at https://takingcare3.splashthat.com/. And as always, send your Love Letters questions to loveletters@globe.com. Meredith Goldstein can be reached at meredith.goldstein@globe.com. This interview was transcribed and edited by Goldstein and Globe correspondent Grace Griffin.