Dr. Janina Scarlet has released her newest book SUPERHERO THERAPY. Part self-help book, part comic book (illustrated by Marvel’s Wellinton Alves), SUPERHERO THERAPY is a dynamic introduction to self-care through the context of geek culture, teaching the reader how to manage anxiety, depression, and mental health concerns.

Dr. Janina Scarlet is a Russian-Jewish-American refugee and brilliant scientist. As a licensed clinical psychologist, she incorporates elements of geek culture into evidence-based therapy, such as Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy and Acceptance and Commitment Therapy. She is currently working as a clinical psychologist at the Center for Stress and Anxiety Management, helping people with PTSD, anxiety, and depression.

This is a transcript of an audio interview and has been edited for clarity.

Superhero therapy
Dr. Janina Scarlet. Image from her website, Superhero Therapy.

Janina Scarlet’s Superhero Origin Story

ComicsVerse (CV): Can you tell us a little about yourself and your personal background?

Janina Scarlet (JS): I’m a clinical psychologist. I’m also an author and a full-time geek. I’ve written a book called SUPERHERO THERAPY, which incorporates my love for pop-culture and therapy. What I do is I incorporate popular culture in therapy to help patients with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, Depression, and Anxiety.

CV: When did you realize you wanted to become a psychologist?

JS: I was always a fan of stories. I remember being six years old and listening to the elderly people in my neighborhood tell stories about their experiences during WWII, […I] fascinated by what they had lived through, wanting very badly to learn more, wanting so badly to help. I didn’t know what this profession was called at that age, or even that it was a possibility, but I knew back then that I wanted to help people somehow. When I was 9 I started reading my mom’s psychology books, and I think it was then that I really knew.

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Janina Scarlet and Geek Culture

CV: How did you get into geek culture? What are some of the early examples you remember in the process of identifying as a geek?

JS: I think the very first experiences were when I first saw the first X-MEN movie. So just a little bit of a background story, when I was three years old my family and I were exposed to Chernobyl radiation when we lived in Ukraine. When we came to this country, a lot of people bullied me for being a radiation survivor. When I saw the first X-MEN movie, it allowed me to better understand what I was going through, because I was actually seeing characters that were also exposed to radiation, that were mutants kind of like me. I saw them seeing themselves as survivors, saw them using their skills to help other people.

So it was around that time that I thought, hey you know, comic book characters are cool, and geek culture is really cool, and I would want to start using fiction more in this way to try to understand my own emotions, and then to help other people understand theirs. But to be honest, I remember being as little as six years old and being in the hospital, just wanting to read books to relate to all different kinds of characters. Maybe I didn’t know the word “geek” back then, but I knew that I related to fictional characters in a really profound way that helped me better understand what I was experiencing, too.

CV: Who are some of the superheroes or comic book figures that inspired you or whom you related to?

JS: The one I relate to the most is Storm from the X-MEN. Storm has a unique connection with the weather, where she is influenced by the weather and the weather influences her. She’s able to manipulate the weather, and for me, the radiation exposure caused me to have health deficiencies, all of which are influenced by the weather. So when I first saw Storm on the screen, I really connected with her. I thought, here’s a character that, like me, has a mutation, that has a connection with the weather. And she’s able to use it to help other people. She’s the one that influenced me the most.

In addition to that, there were other fictional characters that I really related to. When I was little I read The Three Musketeers. That was my favorite book as a child, and I really got the sense of what it was like to have […] that strong sense of friendship when I, myself, didn’t have friends. It allowed me to reduce my depression and feel less lonely by connecting with The Three Musketeers in this way. Then years later, reading Harry Potter allowed me to better understand being different, […] being bullied, and experiencing losses.

superhero therapy
Image courtesy of Dr. Janina Scarlet and Little, Brown Book Group.

CV: How did you come to the realization that you could incorporate geek culture into a professional form of therapy?

JS: I think it was kind of a lucky accident. I was working with active duty Marines with PTSD, and they kept on talking about Superman. So many of them would say, “I wanted to be Superman. I failed,” and they were saying that they believed that they failed because they developed PTSD. A lot of these men and women believed that if they develop any kind of mental health disorder, that is a sign of weakness or failure.

This is where my geeky knowledge came in, and I started asking them, “Does Superman have any kind of vulnerability?” And of course, he does — it’s Kryptonite. Then I would say, “Does this make him any less of a superhero?” And of course, it doesn’t. So we’d be able to look at this to realize that most characters, including someone as strong as Superman, have a vulnerability, and this does not make them any less of a hero. They’ve been able to face their own difficulties, their own vulnerabilities, their own traumas, and they can still be the kind of superhero that they want to be.

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Becoming Your Own Hero with SUPERHERO THERAPY

CV: Can you tell us more about SUPERHERO THERAPY?

JS: SUPERHERO THERAPY is the first ever self-help book that is for geeks, by geeks. The book is written as part-fiction, part non-fiction. The fiction-part is in the format of a graphic novel. It shows six fictional characters. Some of them are represented almost like traditional superheroes, and the rest are based on, or similar to, fantasy characters or science fiction characters. All of them struggle with some kind of a mental health disorder. The other part of the book explains how these mental health disorders manifest, and how to use mental health skills in order for people to better help themselves.

CV: What is a typical session like with a patient using SUPERHERO THERAPY?

JS: During the first session I typically ask my clients about their background, what the difficulty is that they’re facing. Then I might ask them about the kind of heroes they might like, or the kind of activities that they might enjoy. Then in future sessions, I might start by talking about their [favorite] character and see where they might identify with that particular character.

For example, I might ask someone that likes Batgirl, “Have you ever been injured in any kind of way? Have you ever struggled in any kind of way that’s similar?” And by talking about that particular character, we then draw parallels to the client’s own experience. The idea is to, first and foremost, teach the client that they’re not alone; and second, to draw parallels between their experience and that of a fictional character, to teach them to use the vocabulary to express their emotions because a lot of people don’t actually know how they feel.

Somebody that survived sexual assault, for example, might not be able to describe their feelings, but when they see somebody on the screen […] being assaulted, they might be able to tell you exactly what that character felt like. So by doing so, we’re allowing people to better express what they experience, and then find bridges to recovery.

CV: Do you believe that SUPERHERO THERAPY can benefit the larger psychotherapy community?

JS: I do. Actually, I’m going to start doing workshops for therapists about how to incorporate SUPERHERO THERAPY in training. […] The idea is that we, as therapists, owe it to our community to serve them whichever way they need. And I believe that pop-culture and geek culture is a culture; it’s a part of American culture, and also a lot of other countries as well. I feel that we, as therapists, owe it to our clients to better understand the culture they are coming from. Whether it’s ethnic culture, religious culture, or pop-culture, we need to understand what our clients are experiencing, how they connect, and we need to understand their vocabulary. So in incorporating pop-culture into therapy, we’re actually doing a lot of benefits to the client, building better relationships, better trust, and are more likely to help them with recovery.

CV: What are some of the essential messages you would want readers to take away from SUPERHERO THERAPY?

JS: No matter what you’ve been through, you are not your experiences. You are your actions, so you can always be a hero. You can always find something, someway to benefit society; and that you, in your purest, most wonderful form are the most incredible, powerful superhero you can ever be.

Superhero Therapy
Image courtesy of Dr. Janina Scarlet.

Janina Scarlet’s Future Plans

CV: And finally, would you like to share any new ideas or projects you are currently working on?

JS: September 1st of this year, I have a book out on Amazon, Harry Potter Therapy. It’s a free self-help book. I purposely wanted to make it a free resource for any Harry Potter fans, or anyone who’s interested.

February 1st, 2018, I’ll have a new book coming out with Little Brown called Choose Your Own Therapy Adventure. It will be an interactive fantasy book, in which you, the reader, are the hero. It has a little bit of an influence from Harry Potter and Lord of the Rings, and the idea is that as you’re going through these different adventures, you’re learning mental health skills to better help you cope with your mental health difficulties.

Dr. Janina Scarlet’s book are now available for purchase. SUPERHERO THERAPY is currently available in print, published by Little, Brown Book Group. HARRY POTTER THERAPY: AN UNAUTHORIZED SELF-HELP BOOK FROM THE RESTRICTED SECTION, published by CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform is currently available in print and as a free ebookKeep up with Janina Scarlet’s works by reaching out to her on FacebookTwitter, or her blog

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