Psychology, OCD, and COVID-19: Interview with Dr. Eric Storch
Dr. Eric Storch is a clinical psychologist, professor, vice chair, and McIngvale Presidential Endowed Chair at Baylor College of Medicine. He specializes in the cognitive-behavioral treatment of children, adolescents, and adults with obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) and other anxiety and OCD-related disorders. He chairs the Pediatric Behavior Therapy Institute of the International OCD Foundation, which aims to train clinicians in treating kids with OCD.
Dr. Storch is a wonderful mentor whose guidance has been crucial toward my interests in mental health.
In the following interview, Dr. Storch reflects on why he became a psychologist and shares advice for maintaining mental health in tough times.
Why did you choose to become a psychologist?
When I was in high school, I worked at a camp where I took a bunch of inner-city, underserved kids out into rural Ohio and gave them a camp experience. A social worker there made an indelible imprint in terms of how he interacted with the kids.
When I went to school, my original thought was to become a private practitioner. But as I went, I realized I loved research, and as I did more research, I realized there were so many questions that required answering, or practices that needed to change. My mother was a teacher and my father was a cardiologist – and they impressed upon me that the mark of a person is who you help. Combined with who I was and what I liked, it all made sense to become a psychologist.
What role does a psychologist play on a mental healthcare team?
A critical role that differs as a function of setting, goals, and population. Rewind to 2002, I had matched for the psychology’s version of residency at University of Florida, where the chairperson was Dr. Wayne Goodman, the current chair of the psychiatry department at Baylor. I started working in OCD, and I loved it. I enjoyed it for a lot of reasons – the patient population, the extent to which you can help people, the openness and opportunity for research, the colleagues.
Another variable that brings psychologists to the table is in-depth research training that can complement the clinical acumen. In the places where I have worked, the role of the psychologist is a front-line treatment provider, a researcher, an educator and, in my case, an administrator.
In the case of OCD, the role of psychotherapy, namely exposure and response prevention, is the mainstay of treatment and is typically provided by psychologists and therapists. Likewise, pharmacotherapy is critical for OCD and other conditions.
In light of the COVID-19 pandemic and current social issues, how have you been coping?
I have a set of tools for dealing with stress; they work for me and may not for others. First, identify a problem, which gives you a focus upon which to work. In this case, it’s been keeping the team together, morale high, and the team solvent; pushing ahead with that has been key. Make sure that you’re engaging in self-care, ranging from the basics like sleep, eating reasonably well, and exercising to just doing stuff that’s fun.
For example, I went on my first RV trip in Texas (instead of traveling to Mexico); while not the same, it was fun going with my kids on this and camping out. We built a fort in our driveway, which may be the bane of my neighbors’ existence, but it was four weekends of nonstop work/play with my kids.
Try to focus on finding meaning and maintaining perspective. And, try to focus on the positives when you can. For example, we are able to extend treatment throughout the state more effectively through telehealth and reach more people.
What advice can you give to someone going through a hard time?
Take care of yourself. For me, I enjoy writing, and I really like supporting the up and coming members of the community. While the writing is less mine now and more reviewing and proofreading, it’s still enjoyable.
The second thing is to keep perspective. I was raised Jewish and studied the Holocaust. It’s maintaining the view that while this is very difficult, we will make it through this. And, also understanding that others have also gone through difficult things, and keeping things, again, within context.
Finally, it’s finding meaning and going out and pursuing it; happiness isn’t just going to come by doing things, it’s all about seeking it out and trying to build your life around your values.
The big thing beyond those points is that it’s okay to ask for help and access mental health resources. If those feelings of distress go from mild to more significant and begin impacting your life, it’s absolutely okay to say – “I need some help.” I hope that we continue this conversation about mental health.
Pursuing psychiatry and coping: Q&A with Dr. Shelley Fang Rote
Geriatric psychiatry and COVID-19: Interview with Dr. Ali Abbas Asghar-Ali
–By Jessica C. Sheu, third-year medical student at Baylor College of Medicine