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Breathing Practices and Mental Health

March 23, 2023
By 29992

A 2021 Sylff fellow, Guy Fincham is a researcher and teacher of breathwork. While interest in breathing techniques has surged, Fincham cautions that there may be a mismatch between hype and evidence. He thus conducted a meta-analysis examining the effect of breathwork on stress, anxiety, and depression and hopes that the preliminary evidence paves the way for further research. Fincham also discusses the “Train over Plane” travel fund that he used to attend a conference in the Netherlands.

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Recent Publication

I am very pleased to share that the first paper from my PhD work (wholly funded by Sylff) has been published in the Nature Portfolio journal Scientific Reports. The paper is titled “Effect of Breathwork on Stress and Mental Health: A Meta-Analysis of Randomised-Controlled Trials (nature.com/articles/s41598-022-27247-y).

Our publication in Nature’s Sci Rep.

Our meta-analysis on breathwork and mental health has received huge public interest so far, with nearly one million views of my tweet sharing it! According to Almetric, a platform that measures the attention that research outputs receive, our paper has done particularly well among the over 23 million research outputs across all sources that it has tracked to date, placing in the 99th percentile. In other words, it is in the top 5% of all research outputs ever tracked by Altmetric. Dr. Andrew D. Huberman, professor of neurobiology at Stanford School of Medicine and an inspiration of mine, even congratulated us on our work, though I had to reply saying that I am not a doctor just yet (currently being in my second year)!

Exposure of our publication on social media.(1)

Exposure of our publication on social media.(2)

Breathwork has received an unprecedented surge in public interest, and breathing practices may improve mental health. Breathwork techniques have emerged worldwide with complex historical roots from various traditions including, but certainly not limited to, Hinduism (Yoga and pranayama—where prana means “vital energy” or “life force” and ayama means “regulation” or “control”), Buddhism, Sufism, Shamanism, and psychedelic communities, along with scientific and medical researchers and practitioners.

More accessible approaches are needed to reduce or build resilience to stress worldwide, made even more evident by the COVID-19 pandemic. But while breathwork has become increasingly popular in the West owing to its therapeutic potential, there also remains the possibility of a mismatch between hype and evidence.

Accordingly, we examined whether breathwork interventions were associated with lower levels of self‐reported or subjective stress (classed as our primary outcome) and anxiety and depression (classed as secondary outcomes) compared to non-breathwork control groups. We searched seven databases, including two trial registers. The primary outcome of subjective stress included 12 randomized‐controlled trials (RCTs). Most studies were deemed to be at moderate risk of bias. The secondary outcomes of subjective anxiety and depressive symptoms comprised 20 and 18 RCTs, respectively.

The meta-analyses yielded significant small to medium mean effect sizes, showing that breathwork was associated with lower levels of subjective stress, anxiety, and depression than non-breathwork control groups. Our results thus showed that breathwork may have efficacy for improving stress and mental health. We urge caution, however, and advocate for nuanced research approaches with low risk‐of‐bias study designs to avoid a miscalibration between hype and evidence.

A key limitation of our meta-analysis was that, given the small sample size—likely due to the relative recency of the phenomenon of breathwork in the West—paired with a moderate risk of bias across included RCTs, the results should be interpreted very cautiously and not be extrapolated. Breathwork may help some but not others.

Nonetheless, breathwork could at least be part of the solution to meeting the need for more accessible therapeutic behavioral approaches to improving mental health. But again, more robust, well-designed studies are now needed to ensure that such recommendations are grounded in research evidence.

Public interest in and research on meditation has surged over recent decades. We may be at a similar cusp with breathwork and anticipate considerable growth in the field. Given the close ties of breathwork to psychedelic research, this could further accelerate growth. The scientific research community can build on the preliminary evidence provided here and thus potentially pave the way for effective integration of breathwork into public health.

The vast majority of my time spent as a first-year PhD candidate was devoted to this research project. I would like to thank my colleagues and collaborators at the University of Sussex and University of Oxford, along with the editor and reviewers at Scientific Reports for improving our work. Lastly, this research would not have been possible if it was not for the Sylff Association. I hope that this is only the beginning.

I am launching some of my own empirical breathwork studies soon with the Psychology and Medical Schools here at Sussex and with the University of California San Francisco (UCSF). I am also writing a physiologically oriented review with the Brighton and Sussex Medical School, and I am a co-investigator on The Breathwork Survey, launched by the Centre for Psychedelic Research at Imperial College London.


Train over Plane, Psychedelic Breathwork, and ICPR 2022

In late 2022 I traveled to Amsterdam and Haarlem in the Netherlands for ICPR 2022 (Interdisciplinary Conference on Psychedelic Research), primarily for a workshop the day before on breathwork, my research focus (Breathwork as Psychedelic Therapy).

As part of its green commitment, the University of Sussex School of Psychology has launched a new “Train over Plane” travel fund, which supports travel to conferences by train instead of plane. As a doctoral researcher I was fortunately one of the first to try it out, so I share my thoughts below on my experience with the trip I made to the Netherlands.

had a profound experience that I could never have imagined or expected from breathwork (and so much more). I have undergone a personal paradigm shift and have gained an newfound respect for the therapeutic potential of breathwork as and for psychedelic therapy. The experience was invaluable and has made me view psychedelic breathwork under a new lens, which will benefit my future research and work.

Moreover, I connected with researchers and clinicians, some of whom were very interested in The Breathwork Survey that I am working on with the Psychedelic Research Group at Imperial College London. I had a lot of fun and had some lovely down regulation time the day after it had all finished.

Brussels after riding the Eurostar for my first time.


I wanted to use the Train over Plane fund because train is my favorite form of transport by far and is fortunately more eco-friendly than flying, saving up to 90% in carbon emissions. I had never been on Eurostar before so was glad to find out that it travels to Amsterdam. For the first journey I changed trains at Brussels, and the return leg was direct. Another great thing is that trains between Brighton and London St. Pancras International are direct.

Although the journeys took around two working days (one there and one back), I particularly enjoyed the comfort of traveling by train compared with flying, feeling much less restricted and freer. I also made friends with a lecturer at Kings College London on their way to a conference in Utrecht. I would encourage everyone at the Sussex School of Psychology to use the Train over Plane fund if traveling within the UK or mainland Europe.

I am now looking forward to ICPR 2024 . Hopefully there will be some research being presented on breathwork next time (my meta-analysis)! I would like to thank the Open Foundation and Open Up for organizing the ICPR conference and (breath)workshop, respectively; Sylff once again for funding me and making all this possible; my supervisors Kate Cavanagh and Clara Strauss for giving me their advice; Charlotte Rae and Harry Lewis for setting up the Train over Plane fund; and Mitzi Tahsin and Fran Barnard for assisting me when booking through the Key Travel platform.

Yes, that is me in the photos here (including my brain while doing breathwork in the MRI scanner at Sussex)!

Most importantly, thank YOU for reading (and breathing)!


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Municipality of Pallini, Greece: How Covid-19 Has Affected the Delivery of Supporting Services

September 3, 2021
By 24941

Eleni Konstantinou, a 2001 Sylff fellow, is a psychologist and group and family therapist who now works for the municipality of Pallini, Greece. She discusses how the measures in response to COVID-19 have impacted social support services in the municipality, with personal observations about how people, including herself, have adjusted largely positively to the lack of direct contact.

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The aim of this article is to present how COVID-19 and the imposed measures have altered, changed, and affected the delivery of supporting services such as psychological support, consulting, and lifelong learning programs in the Municipality of Pallini.

I am a psychologist, family and group therapist, and a member of the Sylff community. I received the Sylff grant in 2001 during my postgraduate studies in school psychology. In 2018 I was very honored to be chosen to attend the Sylff Leaders Workshop in Japan—a great experience that helped me deepen my knowledge in international cooperation for a common goal. I had the chance to meet and communicate with exceptional people from all over the world who are expert in their field of work and studies. I also had the privilege of experiencing and tasting Japan’s culture. I am more than thankful to the Sylff Association secretariat for organizing this memorable and unique event with great success.

I have been working in the Municipality of Pallini (Region of Eastern Attica, Greece) for a decade. Since 2016, I have been in charge of the Education, Continuing Education, and Culture Section of the Department of Social Policy.

The mayor of Pallini, Mr. Athanasios Zoutsos, expresses the basic principle of the municipality during the pandemic as follows: “Νo one should be left alone, without access to public services in these harsh times.” But how could this happen? Is it possible for people to access public services when there are strict measures on circulation to lower the number of active COVID-19 cases? After the outbreak of the pandemic, people have had to send a text message to 13033 to get a circulation permit within their prefecture. Οne can only move around for health reasons (e.g., to see a doctor or to go to the hospital or pharmacy), to shop at the supermarket, to go to the bank, or to help someone in need. It is also permissible for divorced parents to visit their children. If a ceremony such as a wedding, christening, or funeral takes place, only a few relatives are able to attend. Finally, in order to leave the house, everyone must carry an ID and send the aforementioned required message to 13033, even if it is to walk his or her dog or just exercise individually. Wearing face masks is compulsory everywhere. Due to the above, when the mayor of Pallini speaks of supporting the citizens, he is referring to the ability to access public services mainly digitally via Internet. Moreover, because of the reduction in circulation, there are certain cases where municipal staff must visit vulnerable people in need and offer goods for free from the local grocery store.

If I could briefly explain my current position, I would mostly refer to consulting, consultation programs, and consulting groups for parents and teachers. Furthermore, part of my job is to organize continuing education activities and programs and supervise school cleaning staff.


Before the outbreak of the pandemic crisis, people used to visit me in my office at the Town Hall, asking for information and apply for consulting. A therapeutic procedure was designed according to their needs, including personal consulting sessions, couples’ therapy, and even group therapy. That was the formal procedure. Now consulting is mostly done on the phone. People can receive our services only with prior arrangement by phone. We are all obliged to wear masks and keep a 1.5-m distance.

Personal contact is essential during consulting. Now that we miss smiles and facial expressions in general, we have to cultivate and promote other skills to communicate effectively with one another. In the beginning, counseling on the phone was a bit awkward for both therapist and client, since our service is not a phone line. But we had to adjust to the current situation and overcome this obstacle by focusing on the voice tone, the pauses, or even the breathing. Unfortunately, group therapy meetings had to stop for safety reasons.

Meeting with teachers at school.

Moreover, we created a series of videos with relaxing music in the background, pleasant images, and tips on surviving curfew (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4p711Di-3Nc, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NwmL4v_1hok, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xY6PZCDLsPg). Making these videos was incredible, as I worked together with people whom I had never met. We cooperated harmoniously and effectively without knowing one another. Respecting one another and knowing that we were working for a common goal were enough for us. Our meetings were held only by telephone. I was very honored that my script was narrated by a famous Greek actor and member of the City Council, Mrs. Aspasia Tzitzikaki, while Mr. Michalis Christodoulides composed the original soundtrack. Finally, Mrs. Karolina Kosmetatou was responsible for the image editing. Because of the current circumstances, we have not managed to meet till now! What we have learned from this experience is that such skills as flexibility, adjustment, and resilience are essential not only for survival but also for creativity.


Before the pandemic crisis, I used to visit schools following teachers’ requests to help them deal with students’ behavioral problems. In addition, the principal of the school would organize staff meetings with me to overcome unpleasant situations at schools involving students, teachers, and parents. Now that schools are closed and lessons are held via an Internet platform (Webex), my communication with teachers and school personnel is limited to the phone. Teachers mention the lack of communication, especially with high school students, and all the difficulties that arise during Webex lessons. They are also anxious about their students’ mental health. Now mental resilience is more important than learning!

School for Parents

The Online School for Parents.

The implementation of prevention programs is one of the main goals of our services. In this context, the School for Parents is a counseling and informative program for parents. There are more than 90 applicants, and approximately half of them attend the lectures. In March 2020 we were forced to stop the meetings because of the enforcement of strict measures against the pandemic. To keep in touch with parents and students, we created a blog with relevant articles written by the guest speakers so that parents would not feel alone or isolated during COVID times. In June 2020 we managed to meet again at the closing ceremony, taking all the necessary measures. During this academic year we had to reform and redesign the format of the School for Parents. We thus organized , consisting entirely of online meetings that took t place once a week every Wednesday from 6 to 8 pm (from January to May 2021). Parents could attend them from their homes. For each session we had a distinguished guest speaker addressing such topics as addiction, safer Internet, eating disorders, learning disabilities, resilience, tips for parents to help their children face the new reality during the pandemic, and crisis management. We missed the direct contact, but it proved to be  very helpful for parents not to have to leave their home and children to attend the lectures.. Parents have expressed gratefulness for this program and that they are looking forward to our meetings. So do we!

Continuing Education activities and program

Continuing education is a very lively program in our municipality. Whenever a program starts, there are many applicants who are interested in taking part in the classes. IT classes for adults were usually held twice a week in municipal buildings. The last program was conducted until July 20, 2020. We were obliged to take all the necessary preventive measures against COVID-19. However, after the last strict measures of quarantine, the programs of continuing education were canceled, following the school closure. But in this case the courses have not been continued by distance learning.


Networking is necessary for me daily. I think that no one can solve all the problems by oneself. We all need one another. For instance, I come in contact with other institutions (e.g., hospitals and social services) and professionals (e.g., social workers and psychiatrists) in order to effectively face a complex psychosocial case. Networking is very useful between different services that face similar problems and difficulties. In addition, it can be helpful in encouraging solidarity among people. In January 2020, we organized a meeting with mental health specialists from other municipalities, hospitals, and mental health services. We closed this event with a wish as well as a promise to meet again. Unfortunately, we have not managed to make it happen until now due to the circumstances, but I am thinking of proposing a Webex meeting instead. We need to stay connected!

Before closing this article, I would like to underline the necessity of solidarity. Close contact is now being avoided, but this does not have to make people feel alone. Even in conditions of limitation, we can get close to our loved ones and connect with respect for one another, with love and caring, so that we can have a good time and remain safe and healthy, without fear!

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Stressors: Observations from a Series of Workshops on Stress and Well-Being Conducted in India during the COVID-19 Related Lockdown

July 1, 2021
By 19594

Based on a webinar series she gave in August 2020, 2012 Sylff fellow Anindita Roy shares her observations on stress related to the COVID-19 pandemic and how it has affected people differently. Turning to the current culture of information sharing and virtual communication, Roy also touches on the importance of consuming information mindfully.

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I conducted a series of workshops on responding to stress and mental well-being for a local charity at Jamshedpur, India, during the COVID-19 related countrywide lockdown. As part of the workshop, multiple online sessions were offered and were open for all. The broader theme to cover was understanding stress and coping with stress related to the COVID-19 pandemic. These sessions were roughly divided into learning about the stress response and developing resilience to enhance mental well-being. I would like to share through this article observations that formed part of these sessions. However, let me add at the start that the article does not present tools and tips. I am wary of making general prescriptions about stress and coping, although surely one can speak of these more generally. My biggest hope in sharing this article is one of solidarity with my extended Sylff family during these difficult times, by sharing with you another perspective of the COVID experience in another part of the globe. In times when each of us has been confined in our worlds and lives, in isolation and isolated, sometimes alone or lonely, I hope this article brings with it the hope that you are not alone and that we are in this together.

The poster for a series of sessions that the author conducted on stress and mental well-being.

On Difference

For a major part of the world’s population today, a pandemic of this scale had not formed a part of our lived experiences. Forcing us to negotiate with something we had no experience of in living memory, the COVID-19 pandemic disrupted the status quo, and the world continues to strive for a “new normal” amid this crisis and beyond. At its peak, the pandemic instilled a general unease in connecting with others, forging a different culture of connection. As we continue to practice social distancing, in many cases, company is still viewed as risky and contact potentially fatal. The epidemic, the related lockdown, and its intensity have not been the same for all. The unprecedented chaos has had different effects on our lives, raising varied concerns. Within the context of the workshop too, it was observed that the pandemic influenced my participants and me very differently. It was necessary to acknowledge as well that it is not only about the pandemic but also about the people and their response to it, and that people are different too.

In an activity with the participants, I encouraged everyone to write with their body parts instead of a pen or pencil. They were requested, for example, to write letters and numbers in the air with their elbows, knees, tongue, and left hand. None of my participants in this session were differently abled, and many initially found the exercise “awkward” and “funny” as they were encouraged to keep their cameras on during this part. Although the scope of the session did not allow us to look at the theme of the body, issues of difference, and disability in great depth, the exercise offered the participants another perspective on their own abilities and the way it may be represented to themselves and others. For instance, some shared that they struggled to twist their tongues or bend their knees, while others who had imagined they could not write with their left hands did so with great ease. There was one participant who noted that their shoulder blade hurt immensely while trying to use their right elbow when making figures in the air.

In a way, this exercise offered an awareness to the participants about the others in their group but also presented the opportunity to know a little more about themselves—at least in that moment. Being on the same boat but not (quite!) in the same journey, this helped with an understanding of difference, while simultaneously offering the possibility to learn together, albeit differently from one another.

On Stress

The above exercise offered a useful understanding of stress itself. Stress affects everyone, and everyone feels stressed from time to time. Yet some cope with it more effectively and recover from stressful events faster than others. When the demands placed on us in any given situation are much greater than the resources we may have (or percieve we have), we find ourselves stressed in trying to meet these demands. Stress is the call for a sense of balance in the face of a perceived imbalance. Stress is different for everyone, and no two people respond to stressors in the same way. What maybe stressful for one person may not be stressful for another, and even if it is, the response to stress and the coping mechanisms could be vastly different between individuals.

Not all stress is bad. In life-threatening situations, stress prepares the body to either fight the threat or flee from it. In non-life-threatening situations, stress can be motivating. Long-term stress, however, is straining on our body and mind, contributing to serious complications and compromising physical and mental well-being. Dealing or coping with stress can be learned and, with practice, can be implemented effectively. This does not eradicate stress in and of itself, nor does it guarantee that one will never be stressed again. However, it offers a roadmap to meander stressful situations, equipping the individual with tools to communicate with stress in productive awareness.

On Stressors

Awareness of symptoms helps with diagnosis. Recognizing stressors is a crucial step toward developing tools to deal with stress. My participants shared some of their stressors specific to COVID-19 and the related lockdown. Most were related to such issues as health in the face of the epidemic, achieving a work-life balance in a work-from-home environment, family conflicts from more time spent at home, difficult conversations due to death, illness, or job loss, and public speaking in meetings via Zoom calls. In going through some of these stressors, an overarching theme that came up was how the pandemic had changed the lives of the participants in different ways. Some of my participants had lost their jobs, some expressed concerns about sick family and friends, and yet others were left worried about elderly parents or children living alone at another location. On the one hand, there was the frustration of students lacking sufficient support and the ambiguity of older school goers on the verge of preparing for their career-defining examinations. On the other hand, there were teachers dealing with the additional responsibility of adapting to newer technologies for teaching and evaluation, as well as pay cuts, in some cases. Most of these stressors fed into a sense of uncertainty. Meanwhile, there were a few participants who expressed their efforts in “trying to find a silver lining” as they talked of rediscovering their long-lost hobbies, nurturing skills such as baking, pottery, poetry writing, and gardening, finding time to exercise, eating healthier, reading more, and writing journals, to name a few.

During these sessions, the participants were encouraged to reflect on how the pandemic and the related lockdown had impacted their lives in terms of perceived differences between before and after the pandemic. These helped explain to a certain degree the levels of stress brought about by sudden changes such as death, illness, and unemployment and stress related to changes in routine such as the pressures of school, work, family, and other responsibilities. The very nature of the epidemic, the ever-evolving research, government guidelines and containment measures, death tolls, major gaps from unequal access to a variety of resources, ranging from healthcare to education to support services, etc, and related information—these all added to the atmosphere of dealing with an unknown future, the uncertainty of not knowing, or the inability to accurately predict some semblance of a known “normal.” (Dare I mention the minefield of mis/disinformation further adding to the confusion?)

My participants and I wondered if we could structure some sense of certainty in the face of unprecedented changes, and how. The idea of this attempt was not to judge whether the glass is half full or half empty but to give back to the participants the power to refill the glass, even amid the crisis. A sense of the familiar in the face of overwhelming change somehow offers a sense of control or of taking back some control. My participants and I discussed forming a routine that suited them and how having one was helpful to combat uncertainty by establishing some predictability. One way to do this is goal setting, preferably setting small achievable chunks as part of formulating one’s routine. This not only helps to get organized but also brings back a sense of certainty and control by helping the individual to lean into things that one can change within their routine. This is also a good way of attaining motivation. Nonetheless, this also extended to the disclaimer that one must not blindly borrow someone else’s routine, specifically out of the “fear of missing out.”

Within the ambience of “influencers,” information overload, and frequent “forwards,” “likes,” “comments,”and “subscribes,” the consumption and sharing of information is undeniably important to one’s overall well-being. Another stressor, broadly relevant to the contemporary age of newer technologies and the present culture of virtual communication, is FOMO, or the “fear of missing out.” FOMO was a significant stressor for some of my participants during the lockdown. For instance, it was distressing for a participant how a friend had lost weight while they had piled on multiple kilograms during the lockdown. They had found creative expression through online platforms and were unhappy with the number of “likes” they had on their pictures and profile. Their friend had been following a certain diet and achieved a significant “transformation,” along with more subscribers, likes, and views from the pictures shared since the “transformation,” or so thought this participant. The latter was extremely eager to go on the new diet and transform themselves too in the lockdown. They did not initially feel the need to consult a nutritionist and said that all the information about the diet was available for free online. My personal hesitation about the diet is that it leaves out an entire food group, but my participant did not want to lose out on the benefits—benefits they thought their friend had gained from following this certain diet.

I would like to end this article with a brief take on “infobesity,” or information overload, another stressor in the lockdown. Information today is widely available and often easily accessible at the click of a button (at least to many sections across society, if not everywhere). However, when there is too much information, there is also the possibility of mis/disinformation. This was briefly discussed in the context of the pandemic in one of my sessions. At the risk of repeating what my researcher colleagues may already know, here are some ways to challenge information abuse (and also help with information overload):

  1. Verify information before you consume it. When verifying the authenticity of a piece of information, check for the information’s
  2. time stamp
  3. where it was published
  4. their author
  5. the intended audience
  6. whether the information is sponsored in any way, and if so, whether the sponsorship or affiliation is clearly declared to avoid any conflict of interest.
  7. Be mindful when sharing information with another. Pause. Think. Forward (or maybe not).

The COVID-19 lockdown saw instances of information abuse in the form of inaccurate information and fake news. Although not typical to the pandemic and its related lockdown, information abuse should be challenged, and one can do so only if one is mindful of their information consumption. Information is useful. Information about COVID-19, local guidelines, helpline numbers, food banks, and now vaccines is significant and potentially life saving. Information is power, and I take this opportunity to remind us of the power we have and of the choices we can continue to make even in crisis, and beyond.

General sessions open for the public can be viewed at:



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Mental Health in Crisis: The Impact of COVID-19

December 17, 2020
By 24113

Elvisa Frrokaj  is a psychologist-psychotherapist (MSc, PhD-C.) and a former Sylff fellow at the University of Athens. She discusses the impact of COVID-19 on mental health, describing the detrimental influence of the pandemic on mental health, which, as studies are beginning to show, is in jeopardy.


The Importance of Solidarity in the Face of a Pandemic

In both my capacities as a person and a psychologist at the community level, I share the same passion with the SYLFF Association for making the world a better place. I utterly believe, as we say in Greece, that all people can contribute positively to a situation, each by adding a “small stone.” This means that by cooperating and thus becoming small parts of a large sum, it becomes much easier to tackle the challenges of life. As we humans are social animals, the value of a strong commitment to giving back to the community is of utmost importance to our physical and mental well-being.

Coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) was a very representative example of the aforementioned need for commitment to community and a very good opportunity to realize that by working together toward a common goal, we greatly increase the odds to achieving impressive results. The prevention of the spread of coronavirus depends on our individual responsibility, intertwined with collective-community responsibility.

Profound, Unprecedented Changes

When the first measures against the COVID-19 pandemic were enforced around the world, I was shocked, as I could foresee the impact the unprecedented restrictions in personal freedoms would have on public mental health. More particularly, in Greece between March and May 2020 we were in full lockdown. In order to leave home, we were required to send a text message stating the reason for moving. The same applies now for many countries in Europe, as a second lockdown is becoming part of our lives.

For the Western world, this state-enforced control over highly valued personal freedoms is unprecedented and takes a heavy toll on the individual’s mental state. The current situation is something that most of us could never have imagined to ever experience. In myself as well as in my clinical experience as a psychologist, I am seeing a broad palette of negative emotions: surprise, fear, anger, sadness, disappointment, and a sense of insecurity and vulnerability regarding our and others’ health. What is becoming more and more apparent is that COVID-19 will not leave us unscathed. The impact to mental health is happening; it is wide. and it is deep.

As a professional I am seeing the same symptoms, emotions, and thoughts. This new condition is affecting individuals at a personal, interpersonal, and communal level. The common feeling to all is that they do not know the duration of the profound changes they are forced to incorporate in their lives. “Until when?” and “After this, what?” are the most prevalent questions. The inability to make any safe predictions regarding the duration of the pandemic increases the stress on people, who feel helpless due to the perceived lack of control of the situation. For all these reasons, mental health and well-being are in jeopardy.

Scientific Studies Confirm the Observations

The crisis caused by the ongoing pandemic is a new, unknown, and unprecedented challenge that seems to have mentally affected a vast number of people. Recent studies have shown that COVID-19 constitutes a new stress factor or a trauma (Gorwood and Fiorillo 2020), causing several problems, such as intense stress of the unknown, frustration, anger, posttraumatic stress disorder, depression, and several other mental disorders (Shuja, Aqeel, Jaffar, and Ahmed 2020). Patients with mental disorders seem to have been affected more. A strong correlation has been documented between higher exposure to the effects—direct or indirect—of the pandemic and loneliness, depression, and anxiety disorders (Hoffart, Ebrahimi, and Johnson 2020).

The mental health effects of the COVID-19 pandemic may be profound, and there are suggestions that suicide rates will rise, although this is not inevitable. Suicide is likely to become a more pressing concern as the pandemic spreads and has longer-term effects on the general population, the economy, and vulnerable groups. Preventing suicide therefore needs urgent consideration (Gunnell et al. 2020). An area of key concern is the potential of the conditions caused by the pandemic to exacerbate existing psychiatric conditions and influence the manifestation of their symptoms. For instance, patients with paranoid psychosis seemed to have increased illusions under particular COVID-19-related conditions (Coogan, Faltraco, and Thome 2020).

As psychologists at the community clinical level, Ms. Iliana Fylla (psychiatrist, scientific director of the Mobile Mental Health Unit of Child and Adolescent Center, KMPSY, on the island of Chios, Greece) and I studied the consequences of COVID-19 on the psychopathology of our patients after the lockdown that was enforced from March to May 2020. Our studies documented the worsening of mental health among a sample of 450 patients of KMPSY. Thirty-nine of the patients claimed to have experienced a worsening of their mental health after the pandemic. Figures 1 and 2 below illustrate these findings. This study was published at the 28th Panhellenic Psychiatric Conference held in Thessaloniki, Greece, from October 29 to November 1, 2020.


Figure 1. Mental Health Disorders (ICD-10)[1]


Figure 2. Symptomatology after Covid-19 (ICD-10)


More specifically, Figure 1 shows the percentage of the symptoms of mental health patients that were claimed to have worsened. Among all our psychiatric patients (total patients: 450), 39 patients presented a worsening of psychopathology. Figure 2 shows in detail the degrees of worsening of mental health symptoms after lockdown. Thirty-nine of 450 psychiatric patients seemed to have more illusions, delusions, suicidal thought, sexual disorders, and so forth.

In sum, the results of our study confirmed the findings of other studies and showed that 11.5% of mental health patients at KMPSY presented recrudescence in their psychopathology (79.0% women, 20.5% men).

Reviews have shown that this pandemic has been compared to natural disasters such as earthquakes and tsunamis, wars, and international mass conflicts, but in these situations the threat is recognized easily, whereas in pandemic the threat is invisible, could be anywhere, and could be transmitted from any person nearby (Gorwood and Fiorillo 2020). The pandemic has created many problems. In this study patients with “affective disorders” presented more intense symptoms. Some of them also had suicidal ideation, increase of compulsions, illusions, and delusion. The best way to confront these consequences is to reinforce and enhance the care support network.

Actions for Public Mental Health

In April 2020 the Psychology Association of Chios took a series of actions to raise awareness in the local community about COVID-19 and foster and reinforce the mental health of people with useful tips and advice. As part of these actions, we gave an interview on local television (https://bit.ly/3519HHl), in which we talked about the psychological impact of the pandemic on young and older people. Understandably, people experience negative feelings such as anger, despair, and depressive symptoms that are caused by the lockdown (April–May 2020). Lockdown affects not only mental health patients but also people who have not had mental health issues before. We tried to propose constructive ways of better managing the situation.

After that, we created a small video (https://bit.ly/3evzCtH ) as an advertisement with a social message—“Keep the coronavirus away and be safe”—in which each psychologist expressed feelings and emotions about COVID-19. Finally, we published articles with tips on how to confront the situation. This multifaceted approach helped people in the local community to stay positive, reduce stress, and avoid panic. I believe that such organized action from professional and scientific organizations can effectively help people confront the situation and the impact of COVID-19.

Useful Tips

  • Read reliable sources that are based on scientific data to avoid misinformation, which implies more stress.
  • This situation is unprecedented on a global level. The feeling of “helplessness” is expected but renders us more vulnerable mentally. Try to find ways to manage this feeling by being creative or dealing with things that make you happy and positive.
  • Find alternative ways of communicating with friends by socializing and having fun using tools that modern technology offers (e.g., Skype, Zoom, Google Meet). It is an opportunity to communicate with our friends and other people or to spend your time by watching interesting videos on YouTube.
  • Listen to music, read a book, or exercise to improve mental health and well-being.
  • Provide support and dedicate time to elderly people who may feel lonely or to your children and family. Try to show empathy if they are afraid or help them psychologically by listening carefully to their concerns and trying to rationalize them.
  • Be positive and focus on what you can control.


To Sum Up

This undoubtedly is a difficult and challenging period, but we can find ways to adapt and be happier living through it, even though there are radical changes in our daily life. It is crucial to focus on the present, in the “here and now,” and to the things that we can control. It is a period that shall pass and may present a good chance for all of us to treasure those little things in our lives, the most precious, which sometimes we take for granted or ignore altogether.

Let’s hope we will get through it soon.
Be strong and take care!



Coogan, A.N., F. Faltraco, M. Fischer, and J. Thome. 2020. “COVID-19 Paranoia in a Patient Suffering from Schizophrenic Psychosis: A Case Report.” Psychiatry Research 288 (11).

Fiorilo, A. and P. Gorwood. 2020. “The Consequences of the COVID-19 Pandemic on Mental Health and Implications for Clinical Practice.” European Psychiatry 63 (1), e32: 1–2.

Gunnell, D., E. Arensman, K. Hawton, and L. Appleby. 2020. “Suicide Risk and Prevention during the COVID-19 {andemic.” The Lancet Psychiatry 7 (6).

Hoffart, A., S. U. Johnson, and O. V. Ebrahimi. 2020. “Loneliness and Social Distancing during the COVID-19 Pandemic: Risk Factors and Associations with Psychopathology.” Retrieved from psyarxiv.com/j9e4q. DOI: 10.31234/osf.io/j9e4q

Shuja, K.H., M. Aqeel, A. Jaffar, and A. Ahmed. 2020. “COVID-19 Pandemic and Impending Global Mental Health Implications.” Psychiatria Danubina 32 (1): 32–35.

[1] ICD-10 is the 10th revision of the International Statistical Classification of Diseases and Related Health Problems (ICD), a medical classification list by the World Health Organization (WHO). 

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Providing Space for Good Conversations on YouTube amid the COVID-19 Pandemic

September 18, 2020
By 25157

James Martyn completed his Doctorate at Massey University in New Zealand in 2014–16 as a Sylff fellow. He currently works as a psychologist at the Department of Corrections in Tauranga, the fifth most populous city of New Zealand, and privately as a mental health consultant. Amid the worldwide COVID-19 pandemic, James has been utilizing his expertise in creating space for good conversations through a short video series on YouTube, covering such useful topics as stress and better habits under the difficult circumstances.

* * *

Introduction: Good Intentions

I have always wanted to be the sort of person who can be helpful in a time of need; to know not only that I can help if needed but that the type of help I can provide is useful. It is one of the things that led me to become a psychologist. But if I am honest with myself, there are many days when I feel like I fall short. As I sit and reflect on life, I often feel an internal pull toward doing more for others: to give more, be more, and have more of an impact. Too often, I think of the “big” things I wish I could do or might do in the future to be useful. However, during these times, it is easy to discount the small and perhaps equally important things we can do today to be helpful. It is my intention to focus not only on the big things in the future but also on the small things and the small ways in which I can be more outwardly focused today.

Coronavirus: Different Boats, Same Storm

Amid the coronavirus pandemic in 2020, we have all witnessed and experienced a rapidly changing world. These changes have contributed to a wide range of very real challenges that we have either experienced or observed in ourselves and in others. Whether the challenges were experienced emotionally, physically, socially, psychologically, or spiritually, there are very few people who have not been affected in some way by the recent circumstances. 

While I think it is a misconception that we are all in the same boat together during this pandemic, I certainly feel we are all experiencing the same storm. At times the figurative rain and wind have felt unrelenting. During this time some of our boats, for a variety of reasons, continue to fare better or worse than others. But like all storms, this too will pass—although this particular storm will be long remembered. The storm’s gift and curse is that it has brought to our attention a number of areas, personally, nationally, and even globally, that may require some repair to ensure our safety and the safety of others in the future. 

In our small country of New Zealand, with just over five million in population, it is easy to see that we have been incredibly lucky as a whole, despite the suffering of many. As of this writing, our country has been fortunate enough to be able to lift almost all of its coronavirus restrictions, despite some fluctuates across the country. However, New Zealand, as with many other countries, continues to face struggles. The increased stressors, pressures, and uncertainty that have arisen alongside the implications of the coronavirus have had and continue to have an impact on many people’s mental health and well-being. 

How Can I Be Helpful?

Just a few months ago, our country, like many others, entered full lockdown. We began to face the challenges of social and community disruption, financial pressures, and interruptions to many aspects of our daily lives on a scale that we had not seen before. While many people did not experience significant difficulties, for others the impact and uncertainty brought considerable stress. 

As a psychologist, I continue to work with adaptations to my day-to-day activities. In one of my roles, I work as a consultant with a friend and colleague at Lumind.co.nz. Lumind is a small start-up consulting and training company that we created with the intention to provide accessible, useable, and relevant evidence-based psychological information to businesses and community groups. Our aim is to help groups to “mind what matters.” Talking via Zoom, at one point we discussed the likely implications of the coronavirus on mental health. We wanted to help in some way, to find a place to step outside of our comfort zone. Together, we have often discussed the “big” ideas and dreams about what we can pursue. In doing so we have dreamt, strategized, and reflected, often at the expense of acting in the short term. This is not to say that taking time to think big is unhelpful, but I feel our focus on the future can at times lead to missing the smaller opportunities that lie in front of us. Consequently, as we spoke about wanting to be useful in this moment of the coronavirus pandemic, we decided to put aside our preconceptions of having a polished product and simply try to give some of our knowledge and resources to others. We tried to be useful in our own small way.

Our Mental Health and Technology Focus

Our particular area of interest at our business, Lumind, is the intersection between mental health and technology. It is our view that at present, psychological resources are not delivered effectively. Access to evidence-based psychology assessment and intervention in the community is typically bottlenecked by limited service resources. This is due in part to numerous barriers that surround current mental health treatment and delivery, which have contributed to discrepancies between treatment needs, availability, and uptake. Consequently, too many people who could benefit from psychological resources and greater well-being ultimately miss out on or are not afforded equal opportunity for access. It is our view that technology is one critical component that can help disseminate evidenced-based psychological resources and potentially improve access to appropriate resources in the future. We feel that this may subsequently work to improve mental health and well-being for many who may have otherwise missed out. 

Mental health and well-being has become an increasingly popular topic in recent years. New Zealand was the first country in the world to develop a “Wellbeing Budget.” Additionally, the number of well-being-focused websites, applications, podcasts, books, and other resources has grown exponentially. On the whole, this is a great thing. However, not all content is created equal. It is our view that there is a lot of information available through technology that has good intentions, but not all are evidence based. In some cases, the content and delivery method may even lead to a negative outcome. As such, we feel that psychologists should have a voice in the well-being and technology area. Lumind wants to be part of the conversation.

Creating the “Minding What Matters” Video Series

With this in mind, outside of our normal work, we decided to do something small using technology—something that utilized our expertise. As with any time you put yourself out to the public, it was very easy to think of the reasons not to go ahead. For instance, there was plenty of other content available online; our video and audio quality was relatively low; given that our content was casual and unscripted, we may say something incorrect or that may be judged differently than our intention. However, when we came back to our intention—to show support to our community in a time of need—we felt that the benefit was worth the effort. 

As psychologists, we are not trying to pretend we “have it all together.” We understand that we have our own paths climbing our own personal mountains with their own unique set of challenges. However, from our vantage point on our mountain, we may be able to see your position from a different angle. Our perspective, as well as the skills we have developed along the way, may be valuable to share. As such, my colleague and I decided to put together a short video series titled “Minding What Matters.” Each video was a casual, lighthearted, and short conversation with other psychologists. Together, we chatted around a particular topic area that we thought may be helpful during COVID-19 and beyond. 

The result was a series of nine videos available on YouTube with such topics as “virtually supporting someone who is struggling,” “dealing with anxiety and worry during difficult times,” “parenting tips during stressful times,” and “why bad habits strike during stress.” In total, we have had around 900 views so far. Our intention has never been to obtain media views, but to be useful. It has been great to see that a few people have found it beneficial along the way. We have had positive feedback from people in care-type roles and helping professions, strangers, parents, and our friends. That is all we could have asked for. 

Conclusion: Remembering That Small Steps Matter

We are well aware there is better content with better quality available. But I think there continues to be space for both small and big projects; space for good conversations around relevant topics and based on evidence-based principles. In the future, it would be great to work more in this space, perhaps even take more risk and step further out of the comfort zone. But it has been a valuable experiment, one that has taught me to not take things too seriously and that taking small steps to help others today may at times be more effective than waiting for the “right time” to make many big steps to help others in the future. I think there are a lot of opportunities out there, ready for psychologists and other professions to share their skill set. I am learning to be bolder and to open my eyes to what these opportunities may be, both now and in the future. I hope you are too.

Lumind Channel on YouTube


Lumind is a start-up psychology consulting and training company consisting of co-directors Dr. James Martyn and Matt Hegan. Lumind aims to provide accessible, useable, and relevant evidence-based psychological information to businesses and community groups. Lumind’s purpose is to help people focus their “mind on what matters.”

Episode 1: Why This Series

Episode 2: Being Who You Want to Be

Episode 3: Anxiety and Worry during Difficult Times and Lockdown

Episode 4: Mindfulness—Calm in the Chaos of Lockdown

Episode 5: Psychologist Parenting Tips during COVID Lockdown

Episode 6: Mental and Physical Performance during Lockdown

Episode 7: Virtually Supporting Someone Who May be Struggling

Episode 8 (BONUS): Psychologist Learns from 6-year-olds—How to Be a Good Friend in Lockdown

Episode 9. Why Bad Habits Strike during Times of Stress

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Workshops on the Socio-Analysis of Oppression

February 22, 2018
By 19626

Melinda Kovai, a 2009 Sylff fellow at Eötvös Loránd University in Hungary, and her team members have recently completed their SLI project, which took them over one and a half years, to address the problem of social disparity strongly linked to negative notions toward the “Gypsy.” The project incorporated the idea of reflection on one’s own social position to encourage understanding of different social groups, which contributed to the uniqueness of the project. The training materials, the final project product, have been already integrated into two courses at universities in Hungary. The project members hope that the materials will be utilized in many educational settings not only in Hungary but also in neighboring countries faced with similar social challenges. They are determined to keep working on resolving the issue and extending the impact to society.



A mother and son of the Roma people, commonly known as Gypsies.

In Hungary, primarily due to their disadvantaged social position, the Roma people are by far the greatest subjects to racism. In public discourse, the “Gypsy” is inseparably bound up with such negative notions as poverty, permanent unemployment, benefits, informal economy, and crime and, more generally, with fears related to existential insecurities. In most social domains, the “Gypsy” is intertwined with a certain inferior class position and social marginality, such as exclusion from or taking the most inferior realms of the formal labor market, with possibilities severely restricted by manifold exclusive processes. The Gypsy-Hungarian ethnic distinction is in many cases a manifestation of class difference, since class positions are heavily ethnicized in many areas of life, in villages and town districts, and in educational and other institutions. While the lower middle and middle classes are associated with majority Hungarians, marginalization from the labor market is associated with the Roma. Everyday social conflicts are hence often experienced as confrontations between different ethnically interpreted class positions, where the “Gypsy” appears as a menace to the middle-class normativity of the majority.

Our team of trainers comprised social scientists whose academic work focuses on social inequalities, public education, and the Roma communities. The project idea arose from a shared urge to engage in activities that have a more direct and palpable impact on the lives of the communities we work with. Therefore, this project was also a way to experiment and to elaborate methods of intervention and ways of committed political engagement that feel right and adequate to us, to our habitus. We held four one-day and four two-day workshops for six groups of university students training to become public-sector professionals and for two groups of Roma university students. Half of the workshops took place in Budapest and the other half in other big cities. In the workshops, participants were invited to work with and reflect on their own social position, their social roles, and their class position. Our workshops are based on the idea that reflection on one’s own social position can help to better understand the behavior of other social groups and encourage collective action and solidarity across groups. Recognizing the social interests and conflicts involved in encounters with the Roma helps to identify the source of negative emotions and reveals how racism veils the real causes of conflicts.

Potential Target Groups and Specific Objectives

The main target group of our workshops is professionals who regularly encounter Roma clients as part of their professional roles. According to the literature, street-level bureaucrats are public-service professionals who represent the state by their work and, on a daily basis, make numerous small decisions in relation to the lives of their clients.[1] Typical examples of such professions are social workers, health care professionals, and the police. In this project, we offered the trainings to university students preparing to enter these professions; in the future, we plan to approach in-service professionals as well.

The workshops address the complexity and tensions of the professional roles related to social assistance, care, and support. We spend time discussing the typical sociological and recruitment characteristics of the professions. We had to bear in mind that university students do not yet have professional casework experience, so the workshops concentrated on their past “private” minority-majority encounters (which most often happened at school) on the one hand and the motivations, desires, and fears related to the caring relationship on the other.

When working with university students, school was often an important theme: we discussed the role of schooling in social mobility, the class-specific strategies related to schooling, as well as the inequalities of the Hungarian education system, and the school’s role in mitigating or reproducing inequalities.

Our other important target group consisted of young intellectuals of Roma background. In these workshops, we discussed the situation of the Roma people within the Hungarian social structure, the typical Roma roles and social phenomena (e.g., ethnically framed poverty, entrepreneurship, and widening middle class), and the constraints of upward mobility. Subsequently, the workshops addressed the tensions of harmonizing the experience of deprived homes and middle-class intellectual roles. By sharing their stories and experiences, the workshops helped young Roma intellectuals recognize the similarities in their backgrounds and challenges and hence share the “weight” of upward mobility.

The Workshops

Melinda Kovai, team members, and other sociologists discussing the contents of the training.

The first part of the workshops concentrated on the social positions of the participants; they shared their memories and their private and work experiences in relation to conflicts with the Roma people. We then explored these encounters in a dramatic form, wherein participants placed themselves in the shoes of both sides and collectively explored the social constraints from which behaviors (stereotypically) associated with the “Gypsy” derive. Ideally, the recognition of common social constraints develops a sense of solidarity and recognition of the differences of the other.

It was important to constantly respond to the social differences among participants and the corresponding differences in career choices. On the final day of the workshops for university students, we set aside time to explore their career choices in the light of their social positions and experiences. While for first-generation young intellectuals our workshops shed light on the constraints and possibilities coming with their upward mobility, for young people coming from long-standing intellectual families the training provided an opportunity to reflect on their privileges.

The following training methods were employed in the workshops:

  • warm-up and energizing games
  • dramatic exercises, the adaptation of the “wall of success” in particular
  • storytelling: sharing experiences, which then become materials for dramatic exercises
  • sociodramatic exercises and action methods: the enactment of typical situations related to ethnosocial conflicts, exploring the motivations, positions, and interests of the participants through dramatic enactment
  • sharing, reflection, and discussion

The overall aims were that, by the end of the workshops, participants

  • understand that society is hierarchically organized along various dimensions and that the distribution of various forms of capital (economic, cultural, and social), based on which class positions form and encounter other social determinants such as housing, gender, and ethnicity, are decisive;
  • have a comprehensive idea of the structure of Hungarian society and the perspectives of people in various positions;
  • have a reflective understanding of their families’ and their own social positions, their mobility pathways, their career choices, and their interests, needs, demands, beliefs, values, tastes, and so forth;
  • understand how society shapes personal beliefs, interests, demands, and tastes and how habitus works;
  • understand how social conflicts are sparked by the clash of different habitus and how actors in higher social positions generate such conflicts according to their interests with the aim of preventing the formation of antisystemic alliances; and
  • in the light of their own social positions, recognize the opportunities for social action and possible alliances with groups in different but proximate positions to form antisystemic alliances despite the differences in their positions and habitus.

Participants’ Voices

At the end of the workshops, as a closure, we asked all participants to share how they enjoyed the course and which elements they liked and disliked in particular. Two weeks after the workshops, we also invited participants to anonymously fill out a detailed online feedback form. In the questionnaire, they could assess group directing, the structure of the workshop, and the tasks and activities, and they were asked to describe their positive and negative experiences and to give us suggestions for improvement. The majority of the participants gave an overall positive feedback on the training and the trainers. They highlighted that, even though it was an emotionally shocking experience, recognizing their own social position and social differences in general were the most important lesson of the workshop. In the participants’ own words: 

I engaged both intellectually and emotionally—I was deeply touched in both respects. I thought a lot about these themes in the time between the workshops. The workshops were emotionally exhausting, but they were also extremely interesting intellectually.

“I developed a sense of social remorse. . . . I could do so many things to be more responsible socially. . . . I used to see helpers as being in a great distance from me, as being much more clever, experienced, capable people. . . . Yet they just probably took the initiative, started something, and then became good at it. . . . Next year I will volunteer at a shelter for elderly or mentally disabled people.” 

“The topics broke taboos. It is painful to realize how stereotypical our thinking is.”

“I grappled with multiple feelings over a short period of time.”

Based on the feedback and our own experiences, we concluded that it would be more worthwhile to organize two- or even three-day workshops for each group. One-day workshops do not provide sufficient time to process such shattering and difficult experiences. One-day workshops were less successful as participants did not have time to open up or, to the contrary, brought in very moving stories and experiences into the group that could not be processed sufficiently and reassuringly in the given time frame. This difficulty was the most striking in the workshops held for Roma colleges. Furthermore, in the cases of both one- and two-day workshops, participants signaled to us that they would welcome more factual knowledge as well as more emphasis on practical solutions for solving conflict situations.

Citing participants:

“The dramatic enactments were great, but I think it would be good to focus on finding some optimal solutions for these situations. This would have helped us in applying what we learned in “real-life situations.”

“You should give us more factual knowledge on the second day. What is integrated education? How was it implemented and responded to? What is the situation with integrated education now? What are the main political claims about the Roma?”

“I was missing some frontal knowledge, as I was interested in data and practices related to [Roma] educational integration in Hungary.”

Training Material, Dissemination, and Future Plans

Working with Roma schoolboys.

The final output of the project is a detailed set of training materials based on the workshops. The training materials were produced with two objectives in mind. On the one hand, we would like to provide our partners with an introduction to the workshops in advance. On the other, we are planning to disseminate our methodology among university and secondary school teachers who are using action methods or are trained in social sciences. The document explicates why we think that awareness and reflection on one’s own social position can tackle racist attitudes and in what ways our approach is distinctively different from “traditional” anti-discrimination and intercultural awareness raising trainings. We describe the structure and main elements of the workshops in detail.

It perhaps indicates the success of our project that two of our partners, the Faculty of Social Work at Eötvös Loránd University and the Faculty of Psychology at the Károli Gáspár University of the Reformed Church in Hungary, integrated our training in their curriculum from 2017–2018 under the title of “Meeting with the Other” as an optional course for social worker students at the former and “Socio-analysis for Psychologists” as a mandatory course for psychology students in the latter’s Intercultural Psychology program. The trainings are led by two trainers: Melinda Kovai, who is a university lecturer at both universities, and another member of our team.

According to the participants’ feedback and our own evaluation, the workshops had the most tangible impact among Roma and non-Roma students enrolled in universities outside the capital. These students predominantly come from working-class families or from families in extreme deprivation. The workshops have the potential to help them not to experience their background as a source of shame but, instead, to recognize the resources in their difficult experiences and thus become professionals deeply and proudly committed to their work with socially deprived children and adults. We plan to orient our future workshops to this target group by developing a longer training in close cooperation with our partner institutions. Furthermore, we would like to begin working with professional adults and adapt the training to their needs.

The training materials are available from the following. (Please note they are written all in Hungarian.)
Training material_Hungarian

[1] Lipsky, Michael. Street-Level Bureaucracy: Dilemmas of the Individual in Public Services. New York, NY: Russell Sage Foundation, 1980.


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Own Fate: Self-Managing the Future―How to Link Academic Knowledge and Local Practice

January 5, 2018
By 19685

On September 8 and 9, 2017, five Sylff fellows organized an event aimed at promoting sustainable development in Hungary: Professor Eva Kiss, Dr. Andrea Kunsagi, Dr. Viktoria Ferenc, Dr. Viktor Oliver Lorincz, and Dr. Loretta Huszak. Mari Suzuki, director for leadership development of the Tokyo Foundation, attended the two-day event as a representative of the Sylff Association secretariat to support the fellows’ initiatives. The event was significant in that many participants as well as speakers consisted of past and current Sylff fellows. This opportunity served not only to encourage cooperation between academics and local practitioners in Hungary but also to strengthen the bonds among Sylff fellows in Hungary.


The Role of Bottom-Up Local Initiatives in Sustainable Development

A round-table discussion during the event, titled “Sustainability Initiated ‘Bottom-Up’: Is It Possible?” The participants are (from left to right): Zsolt Molnar, Andras Jakab, Balazs Hamori, Eva Deak, and Andras Takacs-Santa.

A round-table discussion during the event, titled “Sustainability Initiated ‘Bottom-Up’: Is It Possible?” The participants are (from left to right): Zsolt Molnar, Andras Jakab, Balazs Hamori, Eva Deak, and Andras Takacs-Santa.

Economically and ecologically sustainable development has become a universal concern. It merits the attention and action of all of us. Hungarian fellows of the Ryoichi Sasakawa Young Leaders Fellowship Fund (Sylff) have realized that efforts are needed on a variety of fronts to promote sustainable development. Local and bottom-up initiatives have significant impact and are indispensable for sustainable development. Accordingly, more attention should be paid to them.

Post-communist civil societies, like the one in Hungary, are characterized by a lower level of participation in bottom-up initiatives by ordinary citizens.[1] Nonetheless, recent academic literature indicates that an increasing number of municipalities in Hungary possess local strategies for sustainable development or support initiatives related to sustainability.[2] These initiatives are designed to use and develop the municipalities’ own resources and internal potential to change society for the better.

The focus of the two-day Sylff event was on analyzing how imperative local bottom-up initiatives are to the economic, social, cultural, political, and legal development of modern societies and understanding how their sustainable development can be ensured and observed in Hungary. The first day was dedicated to academic analysis of the above themes, and the second day was a field trip to Szigetmonostor—one of the most active municipalities in Hungary, where the local administration is very much engaged in cooperation with grassroots initiatives. The object of the initiative was to facilitate a bottom-up dialogue between academics and local leaders and initiators. The chief patron of the event was Laszlo Lovasz, president of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences.[3]

Conference Day at the Hungarian Academy of Sciences

 The first day of the initiative was an interdisciplinary forum, which took place at the Hungarian Academy of Sciences in Budapest. It was dedicated to the academic analysis of sustainability and to the scientific elaboration of the role of bottom-up local initiatives in sustainable development. After the opening addresses, Andras Takacs-Santa, program director at Eötvös Loránd University Budapest, gave an opening lecture on “The need for a protective science in the light of the ecological crisis.”[4] He pointed out that the imperative of sustainable development is forcing us to think in new ways but that the way to an ecologically sustainable future is not at all yet clear. Human ecology and the sustainable way of thinking about the Earth’s resources should “run out in all directions” and find their path to the Hungarian Academy of Sciences too.

Section 1 of the forum focused on “the spatial dimensions of sustainable development” with five presentations. The well-prepared speakers approached sustainability from different aspects - environmental, economic, and social - and on diverse spatial levels. They dealt with different parts of the world, from the regional to micro level: China, the Carpathian Basin, Visegrad countries, the South-Bekes microregion, and underdeveloped regions of Hungary. Taken as a whole, the presentations significantly contributed to the success of the conference and to a better understanding of the processes of sustainability on different spatial levels. After the presentations, there was a lively discussion in which the audience raised several questions.

Section 2 analyzedthe successes and anomalies in communication and their role in community generating, business, and social life.” These aspects were investigated from psychological, marketing, management, and human-ecological collateral perspectives. The impact of people on their environment also prevails by numerous forms of manifestation in communication. Making public property from successes and anomalies in communication may help initiate more constructive societal, business, and grassroots movements and give these movements sustainability.

The human dimension of biodiversity” was studied in section 3. Biodiversity can be found in both nature and culture. Our world is a living network made up of the millions of species of plants and animals and thousands of human cultures and languages that have developed over time. Languages, cultures, and ecosystems are interdependent. For humanity at large, the loss of cultural and linguistic diversity represents a drastic reduction of our collective human heritage. In this section, Sylff fellows discussed human communities that have special attributes in ethnic, linguistic, and cultural respects and whose existence is endangered. The topic is highly relevant in Europe as well as in the Hungarian context. The objective of the panel was to shed light on the importance of maintaining these communities and to link the knowledge represented by Sylff fellows to the practice of local actors and decision makers in Hungary.

Topping the presentation part of the forum was the legal section, which focused onlaw and equity in a sustainable society.” Beyond environmental law, the question of sustainability also emerges in other domains of legal studies and political sciences, such as constitutional law, the institutional background of the protection of future generations, populism versus long-term policymaking, and the economic aspects of environmental damages and its legal consequences.

The conference day closed with a round-table discussion. Invited participants talked about the question of “sustainability initiated ‘bottom-up’: is it possible?” It was a valuable discussion, not only in that it summarized the main findings of the conference day but also because it brought together academia and municipalities with bottom-up local initiatives, as well as nongovernmental organizations, and raised expectations for the field trip that was to follow the next day. 

A key point of the conference day was that the presentations went beyond the speakers’ own research, adding aspects of sustainable economic development. They encouraged the audience to analyze the theme from broad perspectives and led to a successful forum, as audience members were able to understand the contents without specialized knowledge. The perspectives that were offered helped not only to identify research interests shared by the different disciplines but also to link academic knowledge with local practice.

Workshop Day in the Idyllic Village of Szigetmonostor

Discussion during the workshop in Szigetmonostor.

Discussion during the workshop in Szigetmonostor.

The field trip to Szigetmonostor was aimed at disseminating and applying academic knowledge to the field. To achieve these goals, academics—scientists employed by HAS (research institutions) and people employed by institutions of higher education—went to the field and experienced knowledge spillovers to the locals. Another aim was to heighten the awareness of local initiators about how academics can support and help their initiatives, thereby helping theoretical academic projects take on a more applied and realistic role; in other words, to help academic projects realize themselves in a more practical pragmatic environment.

The main reason for choosing Szigetmonostor was its isolation. Although the village is just 25 km from Budapest, it is difficult to access due to poor infrastructure; because there is no direct motorway, the only ways of reaching it are via a 50-km detour or by ferry.[5] This makes the village unique in its inhabitants’ reliance on one another. Given the natural beauty and environment of the place, which has been underdeveloped to date, it is an ideal spot to develop tourism. There is a need to create job opportunities within Szigetmonostor, as its geographic location makes it difficult for the locals to seek job opportunities in central Budapest.

Activities provided by Sylff fellows included raising awareness of the historical background of Szigetmonostor among the academic participants. Mayor Zsolt Molnar of Szigetmonostor elaborated on the current situation that the half-island was facing.[6] He gave his account at the dam, with the Danube and the city of Budapest visible in the background. This setting enhanced and inspired the visitors’ interest.

After this opening, the focus turned to local initiatives. Local initiators presented their activities and highlighted the key social challenges that they wanted to be tackled. A short group session followed, in which participants were divided into groups and had to identify possible solutions to local issues. These discussions were led by professional mediators as well as local experts. The idea was to find a common ground between the academics and locals to help with Szigetmonostor’s advancement in terms of tourism, education, local job creation, and so forth.

The group work was then followed by participants presenting new ideas and possible solutions to existing difficulties. The group activities provided a great platform for initiating future collaboration between the academics and local initiators.

Discussion during the Workshop in Szigetmonostor.

Hungarian Sylff fellows and locals in Szigetmonstor, with the newly planted Sylff tree in the background. Holding the plaque for the tree at center are Mariann Tarnoczy, who has been working with Sylff at the Hungarian Academy of Sciences since the program’s inception, and Mari Suzuki, director of leadership development at the Tokyo Foundation.

Hungarian Sylff fellows and locals in Szigetmonstor, with the newly planted Sylff tree in the background. Holding the plaque for the tree at center are Mariann Tarnoczy, who has been working with Sylff at the Hungarian Academy of Sciences since the program’s inception, and Mari Suzuki, director of leadership development at the Tokyo Foundation.

To mark Sylff’s contribution and its recognition for future collaboration, the group of workshop participants went out to a beautiful park built by the local volunteers, where they planted a South European flowering ash tree as a symbol for future collaboration. With the help of locals, the academics dug the ground and planted and watered the new tree.

Impact of the Initiative

The two-day event was well attended, which is an objective indicator of success. Eighty-one people attended the conference day, almost half of whom were Hungarian Sylff fellows. The workshop day in Szigetmonostor saw the participation of 45 academics and locals; the number of Sylff fellows was 12.

The initiative aspired to link academic knowledge and local practice. Analyzing sustainable local initiatives and their impact on society was a new activity field for most of the participants. The researchers who gave presentations had been invited to combine their actual research with this important topic. It was an experiment that made great demands of the presenters but led to unforeseen ties between researchers from different disciplines—to real-time interdisciplinary interactions. 

The initiative also had the aim of contributing to society. Understanding basic human ecology principles and the operation of local initiatives can help to map out and evaluate alternatives. The participants identified such principles and recognized new opportunities for cooperation between local initiators and academics. We hope that this future cooperation will lead to positive social change in such forms as increased citizens’ participation in local initiatives, better understanding of the significance of such initiatives among scholars, and more academic projects taking on advanced applied and realistic roles.

A well-informed public is crucial for sustainable development. The media can help reach a wider audience, inform local stakeholders, and direct attention to the role of local initiatives in Hungary’s sustainable economic development. The first report of the initiative has already been published; an article appeared in the local online newspaper of Szigetmonostor, informing local stakeholders about the event..[7]

The organizers of the initiative have prepared a special edition for Magyar Tudomany, the periodical of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences. All manuscripts are completed and should be published in the coming weeks. In addition, a seven-minute video on the initiative will be published soon on social media and Internet channels (YouTube and Facebook).

The main organizers of the event (from left to right): Viktoria Ferenc, Andrea Kunsagi, Eva Kiss, Loretta Huszak, and Viktor Lorincz.

The main organizers of the event (from left to right): Viktoria Ferenc, Andrea Kunsagi, Eva Kiss, Loretta Huszak, and Viktor Lorincz.

[1] Marc Marje Howard, The Weakness of Civil Society in Post-Communist Europe (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2013), p. i.

[2] Henrietta Nagy, Tamas Toth, and Izabella Olah, “The Role of Local Markets in the Sustainable Economic Development of Hungarian Rural Areas,” Visegrad Journal on Bioeconomy and Sustainable Development, vol. 1, no. 1 (2012): pp. 27–31. https://vua.uniag.sk/sites/default/files/27-31.pdf

[3] For a list of elected chief officers of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences see:


[4] For further information on Andras Takacs-Santa visit: http://tatk.elte.hu/en/staff/TakacsSantaAndras

[5] Official website of the municipality: http://szigetmonostor.hu/ (in Hungarian)

[6] For further information on Zsolt Molnar visit: http://szigetmonostor.hu/index.php/onkormanyzat/polgarmester (in Hungarian)

[7] Loretta Huszak, “Az MTA kutatóinak és ösztöndíjasainak látogatása Szigetmonostoron,” Ujsagolo, vol. 23, no. 10 (October 2017): pp. 1, 10. http://szigetmonostor.hu/images/dokumentumok/ujsagolo/ujsagolo_2017_10.pdf

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[Report] Identifying Effective Prevention and Intervention Strategies for School Bullying

November 26, 2015
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Jaimee Stuart, who received a Sylff fellowship at New Zealand’s Victoria University in 2009–11, organized a conference on school bullying as a Sylff Leadership Initiatives (SLI) project on July 8, 2015, in Wellington, New Zealand. Attending the workshop as observers from the Tokyo Foundation were Mari Suzuki, director for leadership development, and program officer Mana Sakamoto. The following is a report by Mana Sakamoto.

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Jaimee Stuart

Jaimee Stuart

New Zealand has one of the highest prevalence of bullying in the world, with nearly 70% of students aged 8 to 12 and 50% aged 13 to 17 having experienced bullying at their schools, according to a Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study. Drawing on her research and experience as a phycologist, Sylff fellow Jaimee Stuart convened a mini-conference titled “Bullying: Identifying Effective Prevention and Intervention Strategies” to address this serious social problem, bringing together 75 participants from research institutions, governmental agencies, community organizations, and the media for a rare opportunity to share best practices and discuss how the issue can be tackled together.

Despite the pervasiveness of school bullying in New Zealand, which was found to affect both bullies and victims negatively even after they reached middle age, the many school-based interventions have failed to achieve beneficial changes in behavior. This is believed to be because such programs are not based on research evidence, they do not systematically address the complexity of bullying behavior, and they do not have broad community and government support.

By convening this conference, Stuart—a research fellow at the Centre for Applied Cross-Cultural Research and the Roy McKenzie Centre for the Study of Families at the Victoria University of Wellington—sought to encourage fuller dialogue among policymakers, researchers, and practitioners. She also hoped to produce an evidence base on which guidelines for effective intervention and prevention guidelines can be developed and issued to families, schools, and communities. A set of resources on bullying, including video presentations of the sessions to be disseminated online and an edited book for the general public compiled with submissions from invited presenters, will also be produced.

Potentially Fatal Consequences

In her opening remarks, Stuart pointed out that minority groups, such as the Maori, can also become targets of bullying, as many people find it difficult to accept the symbolic role of this indigenous group in New Zealand culture. Likewise, sexual minorities and increasing numbers of immigrants are often victimized. Bullying can have long-term repercussions for both perpetrators and victims, she noted, with bullied students more likely to suffer poor health and develop psychological symptoms and bullies having greater risk of serious injury and of becoming substance abusers and criminal offenders. The consequences, she added, can sometimes be fatal.

The workshop was held in conjunction with the 19th Conference of Australasian Human Development Association, which was organized to share knowledge, wisdom, and research-based insights into healthy development for young people and families. Held the day before the start of the AHDA conference, Stuart’s workshop helped to shed light on bullying behavior and encouraged dialogue for a fuller range of participants.

Short presentations introduced key statistics regarding youth behavior and implications for long-term, negative health and social influences. Examples of intervention and prevention programs were shared, including KiVa, an evidence-based intervention for school bullying developed in Finland with funding from the Finnish Ministry of Education and Culture. Through an online game, students learn the best ways to deal with bullying behavior. Three schools in New Zealand currently use KiVa in their curriculum, and in the light of the preliminary positive results, many more schools are expected to adopt this program.

In another short presentation, the Gibson Group introduced a documentary about a unique intervention program in New Zealand schools that was shown on a national network in July. Small tutorials are held with students to discuss bullying behavior that is actually occurring in their class, enabling students to understand how their behaviors have led to bullying (http://www.gibson.co.nz/screen-projects/bullies).

In addition, a number of concurrent workshops were held, including one on cyber bullying that discussed cases of online intimidation and harassment. Differences with face-to-face or physical bullying were noted, such as anonymity, and schools were urged to provide training for teachers so they can quickly spot such hidden forms of bullying.

Another workshop given by the Ministry of Social Development asked participants to create a community intervention plan involving students and their families, highlighting the importance of community and family involvement in addressing school bullying. Other workshops and a panel discussion were held on such topics as the influence of family violence on girls’ behavior, safe and peaceful schools, and the role of the community in addressing bullying.

“One of the Best Workshops I Have Been To”

All the objectives of Stuart’s SLI project were met. The sessions of the conference were filmed so that videos can later be shared with other experts, filling an important void in resources. New networks were formed among the participants, which should not only lead to an improved school environment but also engender new initiatives to combat bullying. Based on the results of the conference, Stuart also plans to present policy proposals to the Bullying Prevention Advisory Group and publish a book in the near future.

The conference generated great enthusiasm among participants, who referred to it as “one of the best workshops I have been to in my professional career.” One doctoral student at the University of Auckland, who drove all the way to Wellington to attend the conference, said he was impressed by the commitment other participants had shown in addressing the issue, adding that he was able to actively communicate with experts and gather information for his research.

Many speakers related their firsthand experiences with bullies. Sharing emotionally difficult stories required great courage, but they were determined not to retreat into their shells out of a desire to combat the bullying issue.

While working as a project organizer, Stuart actively and enthusiastically communicated with participants, and the conference is likely to have a positive impact on future efforts to reduce young New Zealanders’ engagement in and exposure to violent behavior. It was also an excellent example of how an SLI project can be shaped to incorporate both research and networking elements and to address important social issues in a developed country.

Thanks to the SLI award, moreover, Stuart was able to raise 1,200 NZ dollars, which will be donated to the Mental Health Foundation of New Zealand.

The Tokyo Foundation wishes her much success in all her future initiatives.