Interview with Chernobyl Survivor Dr. Janina Scarlet
The HBO series Chernobyl was one of the best things on television this year.
It gave us an inside look at the terror and confusion that followed the nuclear tragedy, as well as the Soviet government’s attempt to contain both the tragedy itself and the perception of it, which resulted in only more suffering.
I had the opportunity to talk with nationally-known psychologist Dr. Janina Scarlet, who grew up in Ukraine and survived the Chernobyl aftermath, though not without some long-standing physical effects that are present to this day.
We spoke about what the experience was like, how it affected her physically and psychologically, and how she has become a more resilient person.
Dr. Dave Verhaagen: I’m talking to Dr. Janina Scarlet, a licensed psychologist, and author of several books on superhero therapy, specifically the newly released graphic novel Dark Agents.
She’s also contributed to the Pop Culture Psychology book series and she’s been awarded the United Nations Association Eleanor Roosevelt human rights award. You may have heard her or seen her on CNN, ABC, BBC, The Huffington Post, or the Nerdist among other media outlets as well as on her own Superhero Therapy podcast.
Dr. Janina Scarlet, thanks for joining us.
Dr. Scarlet: Thanks so much for having me.
DV: So we wanted to talk with you today because the HBO miniseries Chernobyl has garnered a lot of media attention and has remained one of the top rated television series of all time on IMDb.
You have a distinct voice in this because not only are you a psychologist—and you can speak to the psychology of going through trauma and resiliency—but you were also a survivor of Chernobyl.
So tell us about that experience what you remember from it.
Dr. Scarlet: I was just a few months shy of my third birthday when it happened. I remember a lot of people being very ill and having seizures and going to hospital.
I remember iodine treatments. I was told that for a long time. We didn’t know what was going on… For about 10 days we didn’t know about the extent of the disaster. So we continued going outside, breathing fresh air, and eating raw fruits.
Unfortunately, we were getting even more exposure and more poisoning. When the news finally broke out about how bad it was, we were told to seek immediate medical attention.
A good portion of my childhood was spent in and out of the hospital. My immune system was so affected that even a simple cold couldn’t be fought off, so I had to go to the hospital.
“A good portion of my childhood was spent in and out of the hospital.”
I also would get frequent nosebleeds. I would have to go to the doctor to get my nose cauterized…
DV: So you’re continuing to have the effects from that experience?
Dr. Scarlet: Yes. The most noticeable effect that has persisted to this day is that when the weather changes, I get severe migraines—which sometimes lead to seizures.
Moving away from the disaster area and to the United States definitely helped in a lot of ways, but the last few side effects have persisted with me to this day.
DV: Did you have additional family members or close friends who were directly affected by this tragedy? And if so, how did it affect them physically, mentally, and psychologically?
Dr. Scarlet: Well, you know, I think the exposure definitely had a pretty profound effect on people. Mistrusting the government and being really devastated about its effect. I’ve known a few people who died from cancer, some just a few years later and some years after the disaster.
Unfortunately, it’s hard to know the exact effects of the radiation on the body, but for many people, their immune system was affected forever. I’ve known a number of friends who had either pre-cancer, issues with some kind of lymph node, or thyroid issues. I’ve also known a lot of people with either some kind of a pregnancy difficulties or some kind of growth difficulties following the disaster.
“For many people, their immune system was affected forever.”
DV: So have you seen the HBO miniseries?
Dr. Scarlet: I’ve seen only the first episode—that’s all I’ve been able to watch so far. It is very, very difficult for me to watch the show.
DV: That’s what I was going to ask you. So what was your emotional experience of watching that episode?
Dr. Scarlet: It was extremely triggering. Up until a few years ago, I couldn’t even say the word Chernobyl. It was too much.
Watching that episode was really overwhelming. Of course, we can’t be sure of the exact interactions that occurred between the individuals that were there, but it seemed to be pretty accurate to me. It was really difficult since a lot of the experiences that people went through in the first episode was what I either witnessed or knew about my family.
Thankfully, my family was more on the Fallout Zone where we’re about a hundred and eighty miles away from Chernobyl itself. We’ve seen a lot of people with those kind of health effects too—certainly a lot of refugees from Chernobyl itself.
DV: And I would say if the first episode was tough to watch, it does not get easier.
And as a miniseries, it actually gets more intense emotionally and more difficult to watch in many ways. But from what you could see in that first episode, it seemed like they had done a pretty good job of depicting what happened and what the experience was like on a community level.
Dr. Scarlet: Yes.
DV: What do you think has been the emotional and the psychological effects of the disaster on that Ukrainian population both then and now?
What has been the legacy of this psychologically?
Dr. Scarlet: I can’t speak for all of Ukraine—but for myself and my family, I mean definitely we felt extremely betrayed and traumatized. The more immediate effects were of terror—I remember as a small child wondering if I was going to die on a regular basis. I also remember frequently thinking that I wouldn’t make it to adulthood, so I spend a good portion of my childhood being very anxious about my health and kind of hopeless about the future.
Definitely really traumatized when reminded about Chernobyl given the physiological effects. And the frequency of the physiological effects, that especially….A number of my friends went through those physiological effects so there was no getting away from it.
So there were regular reminders.
So because of how frequently I would get ill, the trauma was always there so it kind of felt like it wasn’t just experiencing one traumatic event and moving past it, it was that it’s still there. It’s there on a regular basis.
So it was as if we continued getting re-traumatize pretty regularly.
“It was as if we continued getting re-traumatize pretty regularly.”
DV: A major theme of the miniseries, is that lies—and the cost of lies—is that we pay a big price when we look away from the truth.
There really is a theme about how the government dealt with this, and the impact that that has had then and now seems to have a particular resonance. That said, do you think that, aside from personal experiences, there are lessons from the Chernobyl experience that we have?
Dr. Scarlet: Absolutely. I think that many governments often lie to their citizens and sometimes it’s because they don’t trust their citizens to handle what’s going on. Or because they don’t want to cause a panic—which often what happens is a lot worse.
An example of that would be parents who lied to their child about the child’s illness and the child’s imagination might be a thousand times more frightening than the actual truth.
The ramifications of those lies can affect that person forever.
And from what I’ve seen, the kind of lies that the government withholds and the kind of information the government would hold the kind of life that that it might spread can really affect people in a really horrific and really negative way. It could also create a level of mistrust and start a lot of conflict within the individuals in that particular country. It can even lead to two fighting or even a civil war.
Over the next decade in Ukraine, there was a lot a lot of unrest, which eventually led to violence. I’m really nervous about something like that happening in the United States or in other countries—especially when the government is really untruthful with its citizens about what’s going on.
DV: So you came to the US and you have become a psychologist. You have a PhD. You are a published author.
You’ve been extraordinarily successful in your field—talk to us about how.
You were able to do that you go through this horrific, scary traumatic event that was ongoing every time you got sick. It called questions about whether you’re going to die. How were you able to get to a place of such resilience?
How were you able to get what we call post-traumatic growth where you were able to do really well on the other side of that trauma?
Dr. Scarlet: I saw the first X-Men film when I was 16 years old. My family and I were already living in the United States at that point and that movie changed my life forever.
It allowed me to see that being exposed to radiation, or going through some kind of trauma and being different made that person, and me, a survivor. I was able to see examples of post-traumatic growth in the X-Men, but realizing that, like the X-Men, I also had an origin story.
I realized that a lot of people did too, even if their origin story was different from mine and so I was able to see the effects firsthand of how fiction can help us to better understand our own dramatic and emotional experiences.
So after seeing that movie, I decided to take my first-ever psychology class in high school and fell in love. After that, I decided to continue studying psychology and proceeded to get my PhD first in Neuroscience and then in Clinical Psychology.
Working with active duty Marines on my postdoctoral training helped me recognize the importance of stories. I saw how active duty service members and veterans struggling with PTSD were able to better process traumatic experiences through their connection with fictional characters like Batman, the Hulk, the X-Men, Avengers what have you. I was able to see the tremendous value of that.
And then from there, I went on to write the book Superhero Therapy.
DV: So X-Men was really the beginning of the whole superhero therapy movement that you have really pioneered.
Dr. Scarlet: It was definitely really influential in my career.
DV: Tell us a little bit more about Superhero Therapy.
Dr. Scarlet: Yes, we do! So Superhero Therapy is part self-help, part fictional comic book. It’s actually illustrated by Wellington Alves who is a Marvel Comics artist, but he’s done some work for DC as well.
It tells a story about six fictional superheroes all of which struggle with some kind of a mental health difficulty—whether it’s PTSD, depression, panic disorder, eating disorder, and other difficulties. In order to be superheroes, they all need to go to a Superhero Training Academy to learn how to manage their mental health, and how to become an even stronger superhero than they already are.
The idea behind it was to normalize and see stigmatized mental health, especially the kind of struggles that we all go through. I want to de-stigmatize all mental health struggles and allow people to see that their struggles can sometimes even be a source of strength.
So that’s what this book is about—learning to utilize our own mental health struggles as a source of strength and learning mental health skills, primarily through Acceptance and Commitment Therapy, such as mindfulness and self-compassion, and acceptance and other skills.
“I want to de-stigmatize all mental health struggles and allow people to see that their struggles can sometimes even be a source of strength.”
DV: Your podcast The Superhero Therapy Podcast really fleshes out those principals as well.
Dr. Scarlet: That’s right. So we have a second podcast too, called Harry Potter Therapy Podcast, which breaks down the psychology of each Harry Potter book, chapter by chapter.
DV: That’s awesome. You are a fascinating person and you have contributed tremendously to our field. Your story is an inspiration for other people.