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Meet Dr. Drea Letamendi

Today we’d like to introduce you to Dr. Drea Letamendi.

Dr. Letamendi, let’s start with your story. We’d love to hear how you got started and how the journey has been so far.
When I was in college, I dreamed of earning a doctorate and becoming a psychologist. But when I looked at the professionals leading the field, I didn’t think I would fit in. Inside and out, I felt so different.

Growing up, I was always drawn to characters who wore capes and cowls, who slayed dragons, and who searched for their purpose in galaxies far, far away. From Star Wars to Batman to Lord of the Rings, these immersive worlds became formative and deeply personal to me–they were part of my psychological fabric. In exploring these narratives with others, I learned that many of us have similar connections to fictional stories. Moreover, these connections can help us gain insight, emotional self-awareness, and the opportunity for self-discovery. The relationships we have with fictional worlds are powerful– and can be healing. As such, I discovered that I could follow my own path and embrace what I loved, by intersecting the worlds of psychological science with fictional heroism.

I eventually earned a bachelor’s degree from Cornell University and a Ph.D. from UCSD. As a licensed clinical psychologist, I currently serve at UCLA as a mental health advisor, educator, and consultant to students and staff as part of our campus-wide mission to expand and elevate student mental health and resilience services. I’ve recently accepted the role of Director of the UCLA Resilience Center (RISE), and through this work I’m dedicated to helping students overcome hardships and discover their strengths as they embrace their own narratives.

I am personally and deeply dedicated to the mission of making psychological science available to everyone. I believe every individual has the right to learn about and access mental health knowledge, treatments, and concepts that might enhance their insight, resilience, and happiness. The thing is, I just can’t stop my excitement about Star Wars, Batman, Dungeons and Dragons and other fun, fantastical stories! Pop culture is often a safe, comfortable, and engaging way to reach each other and connect important messages. It brings me joy to lead others through this journey!

To bring psychology to wide audiences, I design and deliver seminars, panels, and keynotes at universities, organizations and comic conventions. Since 2010, I’ve served as a psychological consultant for comic book writers and other creatives interested in portraying aspects of mental health. As a pop-culture enthusiast, I’ve been featured in film and television produced by SyFy, CNN, MTV, and Warner Brothers, to name a few. In my TEDx Talk about resiliency and superheroes, I delivered an autobiographical story about coming to terms with my own self-doubt and imposter syndrome, aptly titled, “Capes, Cowls, and Courage.”

Overall, has it been relatively smooth? If not, what were some of the struggles along the way?
My professional journey has had some detours, setbacks, and straight-up potholes. Imposter syndrome is a funny thing. We can learn to battle it and even calm it down for periods of time, but it always creeps up on us at the worst times. Self-criticism can be deeply injurious and difficult to overcome. I joke that my self-doubt and inner worries come from a metaphorical villain in my mind, Imposterio. This baddie whispers some very harsh ideas once in a while about my performance, my work, and my value. I have to accept that he will never truly be conquered, only confronted and calmed. In truth, I have had a few negative experiences with institutions or authority figures questioning whether comic books and superheroes could have positive impact. But the vast majority of audiences I connect with share that my work has given them insight and hope, as well as validation for their experiences with the narratives they live with and love. This is more rewarding than the occasional myopic criticism. I have strong conviction that fandom and fiction can help us get through grief, gain perspective, and get to know ourselves better.

We’d love to hear more about your work and what you are currently focused on. What else should we know?
I co-host two podcasts that celebrate the psychological power of fiction. One is called The Arkham Sessions and is dedicated to the psychology of comic book heroes, primarily Batman. The other podcast is called Lattes with Leia and is a fun exploration of the Star Wars fandom. These platforms can give audiences an idea of how to consider fandom and fiction a place of self-discovery and emotional growth.

I think what sets me apart from others is that I do not simply talk about the characters and relationships in fictional stories –I also explore *our* connection to those stories and how we can learn more about our own capacities as humans through the safety of fiction. I also dedicate my time to bringing psychological science to spaces and landscapes we often do not see it. I believe it is important to take psychology outside of its field and introduce it to other disciplines and settings, especially entertainment and media. This is why I make myself available as a consultant, writer and partner to creatives interested in enhancing their work in these areas. As a member of advisory boards or an active participant in writer’s rooms, these contributions are also a unique part of my work as a psychologist.

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Image Credit:
American Psychological Association

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