Using Community Psychology to Understand COVID-19

Posted September 9, 2020

By Leonard A. Jason, Olya Glantsman, Jack O’Brien and Kaitlyn Ramian

A sign that says "Covid-19" with a viron in place of the "o"

We are in the middle of a catastrophic pandemic that will change the very fabric of our society. Millions have been infected with COVID-19 around the world and nearly a million have died. The elders in our families, as well as those with pre-existing illnesses, appear to be at particular risk. Others have lost their jobs or have seen their incomes negatively impacted. The COVID-19 epidemic has also exposed economic and racial inequalities. For our students, this is a stressful, frustrating, and often overwhelming time. As educators, we have a special role in guiding students through these tumultuous times. We would like to share a couple of activities that use a community psychology approach to navigating these tumultuous times.

Community Psychology, which seeks to understand behavior in the context of individual, family, peer, and community influences, can offer a way to help students begin to heal, comprehend, and communicate about the state of our current COVID-19 crisis. The birth of Community Psychology in the United States was during a period when the nation was dealing with other crises and faced protests, demonstrations, and intense struggles over topics such as the Vietnam War and the Civil Rights Movement. Community Psychology focuses on topics that are as relevant today as they were in the 1960s: respect for diversity and active participation of community members, for example.

Faced with the current circumstances, some students will feel called to take action or might wonder how they can make a difference. There is nothing wrong with encouraging students to try exactly that. In fact, you can use the community approach to engage your students in this timely topic while simultaneously teaching about the science of psychology. For example:

To Mask or Not to Mask

An image of a planet Earth with a mask on
Challenge students to consider how they would go about increasing mask use on campus. This will likely feel more relevant to students who attend schools in which students are in residence. For students who are receiving all of their learning in a distance format, you can substitute “neighborhood” for “campus.” This can be done as an individual paper, a group project, or a series of in-class discussions. You can use these prompts to encourage discussion and planning:

  1.  How would you go about determining how prevalent mask use is on campus (or in your neighborhood)? How would you find out about student attitudes regarding masks? How could you use research, itself, to shape attitudes?
  2.  How might you persuade students (or neighbors) that mask wearing is effective and beneficial? Consider the importance of prevention, evidence, and agency in the process of attitude change.
  3.  Consider campus clubs and organizations (or neighborhood and community organizations). After all, they are integral parts of the community. How might you partner with these to increase widespread community involvement with the initiative? What obstacles might you foresee and how might you address these?
  4.  What about the school leadership (or community policies)? What are the current policies regarding mask use? How are they communicated? How are they enforced? What ideas do you have for how they might be improved?
  5.  Are there groups that might have an easier or harder time with mask use? Might there be biases and/or inequalities even on campus around mask use? What might these be and how might they be addressed?
  6.  Now that you have explored ways to enhance mask wearing, there are other behaviors that you can influence among your peers, and these include parties where social distancing rules are not being enforces as well as other settings where too many people are congregating. Can you now think of ways to help reduce these types of risks that students also encounter in both school as well as their communities?

Potential Key Teaching Points: survey methodology, action research, attitudes, social cognition, persuasion, community psychology

COVID is Social as well as Biological

An image depicting people and all the many connections they have to other people
Much has been written about the ways that the current pandemic has exposed racial and other inequalities. Here, you can engage students in a conversation about racial inequalities and then tie these discussions back to psychological science. Use the following prompts:

  1. It is easy to assume that when people get sick—such as contracting COVID-19—they will seek out treatment at a hospital. What do you believe are some of the reasons that certain groups, such as people of color, might have less access to health care than others?
  2. Design a study that investigates this issue (e.g. the rates at which different people access healthcare and the obstacles to doing so). What might researchers learn from conducting such a study? What does this tell you about how research can be applied?
  3. The global pandemic has resulted in a number of “stay-at-home” or “lockdown” orders. This means that people in different housing situations will be affected differentially by COVID-19. How so?
  4. Design an educational campaign to raise awareness about how housing is connected to COVID-19 inequality. How might you use community engagement to improve the effectiveness of this campaign? How might you use the principles of persuasion to do so?

Potential Key Teaching Points: survey methodology, action research, identity, equality, persuasion, community psychology, public policy.

When Greta Thunberg spoke out about climate change her work inspired student strikes on this topic throughout the world in 2019. Students in your classroom might not be able to duplicate what Thunberg did but this assignment will bring potentially abstract psychological concepts to life and allow them to focus on potential solutions instead of feeling defeated or just complaining about problems. Students can be change agents and the current generation of students is defined, in part, by their engagement with social causes (especially through social media).

In conclusion, if you are looking to explore avenues to speak about current events with real-life application of concepts, you may wish to explore some of the ideas presented above. Additional resources, such as the free online Community Psychology textbook or Noba module are great for exploring Community Psychology. Some of the ideas presented above can enhance classroom environments, increase knowledge retention, and empower students to become agents of change.


Leonard A. Jason is a Professor of Psychology at DePaul University and the Director of the Center for Community Research. His interests are in public policy, community building, recovery homes, addiction, reducing stigma for those with chronic health conditions (i.e., chronic fatigue syndrome and Myalgic Encephalomyelitis), and preventing violence among urban youth.

Olya Glantsman, is a senior professional lecturer at DePaul University and a director of the Undergraduate Concentration in Community Psychology and a co-coordinator of the M.S. in Community Psychology. Her research interests include cultural diversity, improving academic environments for students and faculty, community psychology values, and the teaching of psychology.

Jack F. O’Brien is a graduate student in DePaul University’s Masters of Science in Psychology program and a research assistant with the Oxford House Research Team at DePaul’s Center for Community Research. He graduated from DePaul with a BA in Psychology with a Community concentration in 2018. His research interests include substance abuse recovery with an emphasis on recovery residencies; Community Psychology education; and advocacy for ethical practices in psychology.

Kaitlyn N. Ramian is a graduate student at the University of Chicago School of Social Service Administration. Kaitlyn earned her Bachelor of Arts degree in Community Psychology from DePaul University, where she also served as a research assistant at the Center for Community Research. Kaitlyn has participated in psychological research since 2015 and has experience working with diverse populations of children and adolescents in clinical and community settings.