Dr. Roxane Cohen Silver has been at the forefront of psychology’s efforts to serve and support people during unimaginable tragedy and to help us prepare for disaster. Over her career she has led the efforts to help us understand grief, coping, and perseverance by communities following on Hurricanes Ivan, Katrina, and Sandy; in the wake of September 11th and following the shootings at Columbine, Virginia Tech, Las Vegas, Sandy Hook, Orlando, and Parkland. .
Dr. Cohen Silver chairs and co-founded Psychology Beyond Borders providing evidence-based practices, guidance, and support for intervention internationally to communities that have faced tragedy — from natural disaster to human perpetuated cruelties. She has testified before congress, worked with the Department of Homeland Security, and led the American Psychological Association‘s presidential task-force on “Translating Psychological Science for the Public” in an effort to use Psychology for better public practices and social efficacy. Dr. Silver Cohen’s influence is profound both for its importance in theoretical understanding and for her incredible efforts to put that data into use for the good of public works and policies.
Dr. Cohen Silver introduces herself:
Roxane was born in 1955 and grew up in Skokie, IL, a suburb of Chicago. In this first excerpt she describes a little of her experience in high school and as a child of Skokie. Notably she recalls the importance of Skokie to her life. It became home to one of the largest communities of Jewish holocaust survivors of WWII in the United States. Her recollection also shows some of her motivation for activism and leadership that emerged early in her life. She was a leader in student government, an athlete, and a good student in high school. To be accurate, she wasn’t a top student, but she also had skipped part of second and third grade and was the youngest of her school peers by about a year. (1 min)
Her father was an engineer and her mother was a homemaker that, later in life, returned to school and became an interior designer. With some success in that role Roxy’s mother went on to open and operate a furniture store. In this excerpt Dr. Cohen Silver recalls a little more about her mother. (1 min):
Going to college was an obvious choice for Roxy. Over many months, she and a close friend returned regularly to their high school’s counseling center to read about the colleges and universities. This was the early 1970’s and they would scour brochures and related literature to determine the best opportunities that they saw for their future eduation. In the end, Roxy went to Northwestern University — just up the road from her childhood home. It was an excellent choice and one that she made only after registering and planning to attend elsewhere. Dr. Cohen Silver recalls her thought-process regarding college and how she ended up going to Northwestern despite little interest in staying so close to home (45 sec):
As an active student counsel leader in high school, and with a clear willingness to challenge wrong ideas, Roxy set off with her sights on a pre-law major. Through some tragic and existential events in her life, plus a newfound awareness of what a Psychology professor could be, she quickly came to throw herself into Psychology at Northwestern. In this excerpt she describes those life altering events that she feels most strongly influenced her gravitation towards studying psychology (4:30 min):
Once Dr. Cohen Silver found Psychology, she was driven! She describes the rather incredible motivation and experience she had starting as a budding scientist and scholar as she delved into her Psychology major at Northwestern U. It was during this time that she met and began working with Dr. Camille Wortman — a women with whom she’s had a tremendous life-long collaboration (2 min):
In the early part of her career at the University of Waterloo, Dr. Cohen Silver began research stressful negative life events. She sought to understand the context and variables of coping for people who had surviving tremendous personal tragedies: divorce from a spouse, rape and incest, the loss of a child due to SIDS. While U of Waterloo is an excellent institution, Dr. Cohen Silver faced a very painful personal period that stunted her research and resolved with the end of her first marriage. She spent 1987-88 on sabbatical from Waterloo during which time she lived in a cottage at Dr. Wortman’s home in Michigan. This allowed her to grieve and recover from the difficulty she has been experiencing, to resume the scholarly collaboration with Dr. WOrtman, and to relocate her personal and professional direction. In 1989 she and Wortman published a now very well–cited and highly lauded article on the Myths of Coping with Loss. Dr. Cohen Silver resigned from U of Waterloo and determined to change the trajectory of her life and career.
Dr. Cohen Silver took a 1-year position as a visiting scholar at UCLA and then, in 1989, became faculty at UC Irvine where she has since remained. Initially she continued her work with stressful negative life events faced by individuals. Dr. Cohen Silver describes in this next excerpt how she transitioned from researching individual tragedy to her life’s work with large scale tragedies. Specifically Dr. Cohen Silver recalls the personal and professional impact of the 1993 southern California firestorm that became her first attempt at this kind of research. She goes on in this excerpt to discuss her study of the tragic Columbine shooting which eventually led to her large scale, longitudinal study of 9/11. This research has been revelatory in Psychology in our understanding of effective policies and procedures for organizing a response to major catastrophe (5:10 min)
Dr. Cohen Silver partnered with Knowledge Networks (a national survey and research company) and was able to draw on their data collection prior to and continuing over the years since the major catastrophic events of our time. As described above, Dr. Cohen Silver’s research on the response to tragedy, coping, and the variables that promote and prohibit resilience has been unique and seminal — influential national and international organizations, policies, and scientific-public collaborations. I encourage those with an interest to learn much more about Dr. Cohen Silver’s research from her website: https://faculty.sites.uci.edu/rsilver/publications/
There is much more to her career and research and I look forward to sharing it with you in the in-progress book!