Dr. Charles Figley Of Tulane University: “Love ”

I think of the blessings of that required more Joie De Vivre. Love — finding and being in love during this period provided the grounding and connection I needed after 4 years in the Marine Corps. Direction in my life — career, family, settling down — my friends, family, and work relationships required my attention and good judgement. Hope is also […]

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I think of the blessings of that required more Joie De Vivre. Love — finding and being in love during this period provided the grounding and connection I needed after 4 years in the Marine Corps. Direction in my life — career, family, settling down — my friends, family, and work relationships required my attention and good judgement. Hope is also an important thing to experience — most of the time, if not all the time. Hope is also important for elevating spirits. Calm emerged in the pre-university years but it was crystalized in the military: finding and maintaining calm. Finally, experiencing challenge is an important necessity; my challenges motivate me to improve, but mostly the challenges I determine, not others.


It sometimes feels like it is so hard to avoid feeling down or depressed these days. Between the sad news coming from world headlines, the impact of the ongoing raging pandemic, and the constant negative messages popping up on social and traditional media, it sometimes feels like the entire world is pulling you down. What do you do to feel happiness and joy during these troubled and turbulent times? In this interview series called “Finding Happiness and Joy During Turbulent Times” we are talking to experts, authors, and mental health professionals who share lessons from their research or experience about “How To Find Happiness and Joy During Troubled & Turbulent Times”.

As a part of this series, I had the pleasure of interviewing Dr. Charles Figley.

Dr. Charles Figley is the Tulane University Paul Henry Kurzweg, MD Distinguished Chair in Disaster Mental Health and Associate Dean for Research, Director of the award-winning Traumatology Institute, and a professor in their School of Social Work. Dr Figley’s early works were instrumental in the beginnings of the study of PTSD, and he is a global expert on mental health and trauma. He has traveled the world on invitation to provide input on severe mental health situations in places like South Africa, Kuwait, and the Balkans. He continues to stay on the cutting edge of trauma research today.


Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Before we dive into the main focus of our interview, our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your childhood backstory?

My childhood backstory was all about sports. My father, John Figley, coached my little league baseball teams until I was in high school. Before I started high school, we moved to the next county over, just south of Dayton, Ohio, and the only sports at my new school at the time were track, basketball, and baseball (summer and fall). Though I was a new student, I was elected vice president of the freshman class at Clear Creek High School. Yet, baseball, track, and basketball dominated my attention. Before graduation, our class visited Washington, D.C. As president of the senior class, I offered a wreath at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. The memorial service affected me more than I realized at the time. Although I was accepted by four universities after graduation, I joined the U.S. Marine Corps (USMC). Perhaps it was because of that Washington, DC trip that motivated me, but I never mentioned it. After a year in the Vietnam War and a follow-up year at the USMC Air Station at Cherry Point, North Carolina, I joined Ohio State University as an undergraduate. It was the year before the Tet Offensive during the Vietnam War. My childhood was over long ago.

What or who inspired you to pursue your career? We’d love to hear the story.

Being the Tulane University Paul Henry Kurzweg Distinguished Chair and Professor of Disaster Mental Health is beyond what I aspired to be as a new faculty member. Certainly, Paul Henry Kurzweg, the father of modern medicine in southern Louisiana, was inspiring with all his good work as a physician and administrator. I recall interviewing a fellow Marine combat vet back in the mid-1970s. I was a new assistant professor, and this was among my first study as a principal investigator. “I was screamed at and hated by hippies,” he said, “and I am also screamed at and hated by WWII veterans!”; condemned as either “baby killers” by the young or “crybabies” by the old veterans. This led to my career-long study of all kinds of human services providers, including military personnel, police, firefighters, and other first responders. I have also studied torture survivors and their families, tornado survivors, nurses, physicians, and mental health services providers.

None of us can achieve success without some help along the way. Was there a particular person who you feel gave you the most help or encouragement to be who you are today? Can you share a story about that?

Perhaps because I was in the USMC for four years, including combat, prior to full-time college, I learned how to cope independently, including new and unfamiliar contexts. Being married also helped. But Don Felker was my first leader as our department head at Purdue University. He recruited me, provided useful feedback on occasion, and guided my career for those important early career years. He wrote a book, perhaps his only one. During those years, younger faculty and doctoral students seemed to be drawn to me, my research teams. But I would always check in with him, and later, with Richard Kerckhoff, another senior professor. There were lots of “doorway seminars.”

Can you share the funniest or most interesting mistake that occurred to you in the course of your career? What lesson or take away did you learn from that?

I recall one time, years ago, our family was going to the beach (years ago). Our oldest daughter, Jessica — now a physician — was driving; I was in the passenger seat with her younger sister and her friend in the backseat. A panel truck travelling in the same direction on an interstate highway suddenly swerved toward us. Jessica did the best she could and steered the car to safety. No one was hurt, and the younger kids (in the back seat), though initially shaken up, quickly jumped in to provide cheers of “We are fine, keep on going” as the cars slowly drove by. Yet, Jessica remained upset emotionally despite the Florida State Patrol officer congratulating Jessica and issuing no ticket or warning. Jessica’s stutter cleared up with a few days at the beach. But the vivid memory of the accident remained for years.

What are some of the most interesting or exciting projects you are working on now? How do you think that might help people?

You will always find me either studying, presenting, or publishing my findings or theories in journals or books. My most interesting and exciting projects are saved for the books. Each of my books is exciting because they are for others who understand the power of trauma, traumatic events, and how they shape relationships and collective movements. Stress Disorders among Vietnam Veterans was published shortly after finishing my education and joining the faculty at Purdue University. My most recent book, Psychiatric Casualties, was co-authored with Mark Russell (Professor at Antioch University — Seattle) and published by Columbia University Press. Stress Disorders was a book that gently challenged how the U.S. military branches ignored the war-related problems among the troops and their families. Psychiatric Casualties, the current book, goes much further in, systematically laying out the arguments made for and against significantly improved military mental health regimes that keep members of our armed forces in excellent shape mentally and physically. Like my first book, it challenges the current standard of care for war fighters and points out injustices. I focus here on the U.S. military’s failure to protect, care for, and effectively treat the consequences of being warriors. It is also the military’s ambivalence toward the signs and symptoms of mental illness generally, and their ongoing, ineffective treatment of mental health challenges — — diagnosed or not.

You are a successful leader. Which three character traits do you think were most instrumental to your success? Can you please share a story or example for each?

I have found the following three traits that are most instrumental to my success in teaching and training practitioners:

  1. Leading and listening by example. I found this when I first started teaching in the 1970s as a new professor. It starts and continues with listening more than you speak; thus leading and listening carefully.
  2. Being in touch with my students and colleagues. But this connection has been a challenge during the pandemic: we were forced to relocate to our home in Tallahassee, with regular face-to-face meetings replaced with Zoom. It has been a challenge.
  3. Self and colleague care that starts with caring for family members above all other matters. I have learned the hard way about not ignoring self and other care for the sake of the mission — being an academic, I quickly grasped the lesson when my team worked too many hours for a reward that was not rewarding.

In a related, but slightly different question, what are the main mistakes you have seen people make when they try to find happiness? Can you please share some stories or examples?

As an academic, most of my experiences of observing people are those seeking happiness, invariably those in their early 20s and seeking a life partner. Many will make mistakes, get hurt feelings, but return to try again. Tulane is a private and highly rated university (i.e., Association of American Universities member) that draws an undergraduate student body that is highly selective and motivated for success. Some students are focused on dating and finding a life partner, somehow, somewhere among Tulane students. Happiness seems to be associated with whom they wish to marry. They hope to find just the right life partner who can guarantee happiness for both of them. If only it were this easy! I recall a senior at another university who wanted to enroll in my lecture course because his future wife would be in the same class. They seemed like a nice couple. I saw the student at the end of the semester looking rather sheepish. He explained they had broken up, but they had both found others in the same class who were mutually suited for them. This month. Finding/building/supporting a family lasts a long time. The pre-marital relationship years time is limited. It is typically seen as a time to sew the wild oats of youth, making as many mistakes as needed along the way to matrimony.

Fantastic. Here is the main question of our discussion. Can you please share with our readers your “5 things you need to live with more Joie De Vivre, more joy and happiness in life, particularly during turbulent times?” (Please share a story or an example for each.)

I know the time: The mid-1960s. I had just returned from fighting in Vietnam the year before. I knew I needed to get home as soon as possible, though I had another year of service. It was during a turbulent period in the U.S., especially for university students. I found college life was quite a contrast with the USMC. Upon reflection, love, direction, hope, calm, and challenge would be those 5 things I experienced during that post-war/anti-war period. I think of the blessings of that required more Joie De Vivre. Love — finding and being in love during this period provided the grounding and connection I needed after 4 years in the Marine Corps. Direction in my life — career, family, settling down — my friends, family, and work relationships required my attention and good judgement. Hope is also an important thing to experience — most of the time, if not all the time. Hope is also important for elevating spirits. Calm emerged in the pre-university years but it was crystalized in the military: finding and maintaining calm. Finally, experiencing challenge is an important necessity; my challenges motivate me to improve, but mostly the challenges I determine, not others.

What can concern friends, colleagues, and life partners do to effectively help support someone they care about who is feeling down or depressed?

Use your knowledge and your relationship with them to communicate their value to you and the world. Remind them of their gifts (e.g., sense of humor, kindness, seeing the joy in life) without appearing solicitous and be concerned without appearing worried. Communicate with them at the deepest level appropriate. Your message should be that you are concerned and want to help if you can. Seek a start in the discussion with them, at least. Note that you will be available to talk when they are ready.

Ok, we are nearly done. You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good for the greatest number of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger.

We are living through one of the most dangerous and challenging times of this century in our country and in the world. The pandemic, COVID-19 and its variants, the end of the 20-year war in Afghanistan, national civil unrest because of our divided nation, global warming, climate change, and now extraordinary seasonal weather collectively creates a terrifying world.

We need to come together as a Nation in the recognition that our very survival depends upon the good will of everyone. I propose here the WE R IT movement. It is about everyone coming together for the common purpose of mutual survival and celebration of life. This is a grass-roots movement that is simply vision at the moment. A number of world-wide movements have started like this and with sufficient support, perhaps starting with scholars and academics worldwide. It is the recognition of the importance of collaboration, collective power, focusing on our common, shared values and objectives.

We are very blessed that some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US, whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we both tag them 🙂

For the WE R IT movement to get off the ground, it needs a spokesperson who can immediately connect with those social media influencers who would join the movement and urge others to do the same. It is at this point that funding and leadership are critical. Not sure who that would be: Perhaps Meryl Streep as Miranda Priestly, from The Devil Wears Prada movie from 2006 where Priestly demonstrated her leadership skills as editor of a leading fashion magazine.

How can our readers further follow your work online?

I will remain a professor on and off line. My email addresses are [email protected] and ([email protected]) and my website is charlesfigley.com. I would love to hear from those who resonate with my answers and have questions.

Thank you for these really excellent insights, and we greatly appreciate the time you spent with this. We wish you continued success and good health!

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