Journaling project welcomes COVID-19 stories

A woman baked for her parents and listened to a podcast about the coronavirus, feeling safer by staying informed. A parent worried about a daughter whose colleague had tested positive for COVID-19. An employee suffered from weeks lacking meaningful social interaction.

From around the world, contributors shared these reflections on life during the pandemic’s early days through “Telling our Stories: in the Age of COVID-19,” a journaling project created by Janis Whitlock, research scientist at the Bronfenbrenner Center for Translational Research in the College of Human Ecology.

Recognizing a historic moment was unfolding, Whitlock and lab coordinator Julia Chapman launched the project in March as an outlet for people across cultures to share experiences about how the coronavirus is affecting them. Nearly 260 people from more than 20 countries signed up in the first two weeks, chronicling hopes, fears and daily routines in written, voice or video journal entries.

“These are snapshots of our life in a time that is absolutely unparalleled,” Whitlock said. “What are people’s stories about how they coped, how it changed life, where they found hope and uplift?”

The answers to those questions, Whitlock said, could give researchers valuable insight into how people weathered a period of massive social and economic disruption, and into the effectiveness of policies responding to the crisis.

The project came together quickly, after efforts to “flatten the curve” of COVID-19 cases prompted Cornell to send most students home early and transition classes to virtual instruction, which began April 6. Forced to revise assignments on the fly in her graduate seminar on translational research, Whitlock thought journaling would give students, some scattered as far away as China and New Zealand, a timely exercise in “autoethnography” – using personal experience to analyze cultural phenomena.

“These are snapshots of our life in a time that is absolutely unparalleled.”

Janis Whitlock

“They’d have this mini-experience of what it is like to live through an absolutely historically relevant moment,” she said. “I don’t want them to look back without having done that.”

Whitlock, whose research focuses on adult and adolescent mental health and well-being, found herself more drawn to journaling, recording thoughts on her phone during walks. Why not, she thought, open the project to the larger world grappling with social distancing and quarantines? Research has shown journaling can be a cathartic process, she said; it is used as an intervention in a variety of therapeutic contexts.

“In situations like this, it’s pretty ideal,” Whitlock said, “because it allows people a space to deposit stresses and worries as well as inspirations and hopes.”

Although millions are documenting experiences on social media, they may be less likely to engage in consistent, thoughtful reflection on those platforms, Whitlock said.

“Telling our Stories” is open to anyone as a journaling space; only those providing consent will be included in any research analysis. Participants submit some demographic information and log how they are feeling. They answer questions about the impact of the crisis so far, their use of social media and where they have found “silver linings.” Then daily emails prompt new journal entries along with any updates to one’s health, living or work status, or that of loved ones. Entries can be made as often as desired.

Submissions are private; researchers will not see personal information or include it in publications. Whitlock said the first of those will be a compilation of stories for participants, highlighting their collective experiences. In that way, she said, the project may prove as much artistic as academic.

Later, she expects the stories to present a rich portrait of how people coped over the arc of the pandemic and of the day-to-day impacts of policy interventions, from Cornell’s campus to the international level. Lessons learned could inform policy in a future pandemic.

A sample of early entries Whitlock shared, from unidentified contributors, conveyed a range of observations about the pandemic’s effects on routines and relationships: frustration and joy at being home; concern about pursuing a degree online; and hope that a newborn would not suffer.

“I think the only way to get through this is to train yourself to see the good,” one participant wrote. “Because there is so much bad. So much fear and anxiety. You just have to try. Otherwise you’ll get sucked up by it all.”

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Gillian Smith