The Women Change Worlds blog of the Wellesley Centers for Women (WCW) encourages WCW scholars and colleagues to respond to current news and events; disseminate research findings, expertise, and commentary; and both pose and answer questions about issues that put women’s perspectives and concerns at the center of the discussion.

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EnergyBlog“E” Is for Energy

The Dopamine Reward System—Friend or Foe?

Dopamine is trending as the most popular neurotransmitter. And why not? There are days I think it rules the world or at least the day–to-day activities of my friends and family. The craving you have when you smell the coffee brewing in the morning—thank dopamine. That elation you feel throughout your body when you fall hopelessly and deeply in love? Again, dopamine. The thrill of a shopping spree at the mall, the desire for the second and third glass of wine at dinner. You guessed it, dopamine. Dopamine seems to be everywhere giving people a little rush of pleasure and energy when we need it most. So what’s the harm? It’s a natural, biologically based chemical that provides energy and motivation.

The harm is best understood by remembering the infamous rats in Skinner boxes back in the 1950s. Scientists put electrodes into the limbic system (feeling centers) of the rats’ brain and sent a little shock to the area when the rat entered a particular corner. The theory was that if the shock was unpleasant enough it would cause the rat to stay away from the corner. Enough shocks and the rat’s brain would wire the corner with the aversive stimuli. However, a strange and unexpected thing happened when the electrode was placed in the nucleus accumbens (a dopamine pathway that is part of the limbic system)—the rats did just the opposite. Instead of avoiding the corner, they went back to get the shock over and over and over again. Up to 700 times an hour! In fact, this was so compelling to the rats that they opted for the stimulation over food. The rats could not describe “craving “ to us, but certainly, the repetitive nature of their dopamine seeking made it clear that this was something they “needed” to do. The increase in motivation and energy that dopamine provides can be a good thing, but when your brain gets wired to compulsive behaviors that stimulate the dopamine reward pathway (addictions) then your life can be as out of control as the poor rat in Skinner’s Box.

BlogPullQuote1.30.15So dopamine itself is not the problem, nor is the dopamine reward system. Dopamine is simply the carrot on a stick designed to give a reward to life-sustaining activities like eating healthy food, having sex, drinking water, and being held in nurturing relationships so that you would keep doing these healthy things over and over again. The problem is how we stimulate the dopamine pathway. In an ideal world—one that understands the centrality of healthy relationship to health and wellness—the dopamine reward system stays connected to human connection as the primary source of stimulation. Unfortunately, we do not live in this ideal world. We live in a culture that actively undermines this precious dopamine-relationship connection. We raise children to stand on their own two feet while the separate self is an American icon of maturity. It is making us sick.

This disconnection is a set-up for addiction as we search for other sources of dopamine. The “other sources” look shockingly similar to the list of common cultural complaints—overeating and obesity, drug and alcohol abuse, consumerism, chronic hooking up. Not only do these addictive, destructive behaviors get paired to the dopamine reward system but they create a feedback loop of isolation that pushes people towards more addictions.

Without healthy relationships we each become like the rats in Skinners box—seeking dopamine from all the wrong places. Let’s rewire our brains for the healthy relationships and connections that reward us with positive energy and motivation.

Amy Banks, M.D., has devoted her career to understanding the neurobiology of relationships. She was an instructor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School and is the Director of Advanced Training at the Jean Baker Miller Training Institute (JBMTI) at the Wellesley Centers for Women at Wellesley College. She is the author with Leigh Ann Hirschman of the forthcoming book, Four Ways to Click: Rewire your Brain for Stronger, More Rewarding Relationships (Penguin Random House).

 

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resonanceblog"R" is for Resonance

The Four R’s – Reading, ’Riting, ’Rithmetic, and Resonance

Do you have someone in your life that “gets” you? I do. My friend Angel and I see each other every six weeks or so but each time we get together I am struck by the resonance we share, the ability to jump back into a conversation as if no time has passed. How does that happen? When I heard about the discovery of mirror neurons I thought I had found the answer.

First discovered by accident in 1998 by scientists studying arm movements in monkeys, mirror neurons were originally described as individual, specialized brain cells with the sole purpose to help us “get” or read other people. They were thought to be unique among brain cells because of their ability to multitask—registering actions, feelings and sensations all in a single specialized cell. I loved this! My heart already believed that relationships were central to health and wellness and these mirror neurons could be the proof my brain needed to believe that humans are “hardwired to connect.” But, even as I was sharing the news with others, I felt a little worried. How could Angel and I click so easily when I struggled with many other relationships in my life?

Also, when I looked at my friends and family, I noticed I was not alone. Everyone I know has some variability in his or her capacity to read others and to be read. So, if we’re hardwired to connect, what explains the variability? Is people-reading something we learn how to do or are we blessed with the hardware to automatically understand what others close to us are doing or feeling? Turns out, it’s both.

As babies, we are born with reflexes to connect with others. Watch an infant for a few minutes and you can see the vast amount of energy devoted to connection. The wiggling and writhing invested in finding the nipple of a full breast, the waving of a tiny, unsteady hand in search of a finger to wrap around or the neck to grab hold of. These reflexes are a pretty good start for connection, but, are not nuanced enough to allow an infant to “read the room.” A baby may become fussy when held by a distracted, tense mother but could not “know” the mother arrived home from work exhausted and irritable after being up all night working on an important presentation.

Researchers are now describing a mirror neuron system rather than unique mirror neurons. This is a more complex, efficient, and coordinated wiring of existing of neural pathways that communicate the actions feelings, and sensations of those around us. It is the way these pathways become interconnected through experience that really counts in clicking with others and making sense of relationships. Imitation plays a key role. Each of us literally “knows” other people by mimicking them internally. This mimicking is concrete. If I watch you walk toward the door with your hand out, I “spontaneously and automatically “know you are going to open the door and leave. I do not need to ask. BlogPullQuote1.22.15Deep in my brain, the area in the prefrontal cortex that plans and executes the physical movement of walking out the door is being stimulated. Though I am not moving, the same nerve cells are firing. When you touch the door and pull your hand away quickly and shake it a little I “know” that the door was quite hot from the pounding sunshine on the glass. My somatosensory cortex that creates sensations fires and my hand feels a low-grade sense of heat and smoothness from the window window. That is added to the immediate mix of how I am reading your experience. And finally, you walk through the door and a large smile crosses your face as you fall into the arms of a loved one. In my brain and body the nerve signal has now traveled through the insula into my “feeling centers” in my body and I feel a similar joy and lightness. I “know” you are with someone you love. All of this has happened in the blink of an eye and without you sharing any of your experience with me. My brain and body uses itself as a template to have a shared experience with you and the closer our life experiences internally have been, the more resonant we feel.

But imitating is not the whole story. Grown-ups must name feelings and experiences accurately when you are little so that when you name them in others later they match. You fall down and skin your knee and your parent says, “Ouch, that hurts.” The pain in your knee and the tears running down your face are paired with being hurt. A friend knocks over your block tower and the energy surging through your body and the tension in your eyebrows and face gets paired with a teacher saying, “You feel angry because Tom knocked over your blocks.” It seems like an easy process except that many people don’t know what feelings feel like in their body. Even as adults, well-meaning parents can mislabel a child’s experience and potentially confuse the development of the mirror neuron system.

Here’s an example. Ten years ago my pre-school aged twins and I were in a terrifying accident. I had driven the one-mile route to school mindlessly for a couple of years. On this day, as we approached a four-way intersection, another van turned left and hit us almost head on. Both vans were totaled and immediately chaos ensued. The front airbags in our car deployed filling up most of the front seat and giving off a pungent, rubber smell; the engine hissed and sent water and steam spraying into the air. Within minutes the local rescue teams arrived en masse—fire, police, and ambulance sped to the accident with blaring sirens and lights. In the midst of the overstimulation, I crawled into the back seat and looked directly into the trusting, scared faces of my children and said, “Everything is fine”—a delusional thought if ever I had one. My son looked right back at me and said, “Everything is not fine, this is a bad accident. “ A reality check for sure, I immediately backtracked and agreed that it was a bad accident and that it was scary.

We develop these pathways for accurate reading in the context of being accurately read by others! When I tell my children everything is fine at the same time their bodies are registering that things are dangerous, their developing people-reading pathways are getting a mixed message. Done often enough, as is often the case with childhood trauma or domestic violence, and the person’s mirror neuron system wires in an inaccurate and confusing way. They drift into isolation as their capacity for resonance is diminished.

A cultural belief that human development should be towards increased levels of separation and individuation can create a mirror neuron system that is not accurate. If I am busy “hiding my feelings” from you for fear of being seen as weak or needy, or if I believe that being impacted by another person’s feelings or experiences diminishes my strength, then chances are my mirror neuron system is not getting the stimulation needed to develop the essential human capacity of resonating and reading others and being read. And the impact of this is far reaching. Human beings are built to be healthiest in mind and body when in strong connections with others. Connection and cooperation are part of the everyday lives of most people and a strong mirror neuron system is essential in each and every one of life’s negotiations. It is high time that we add the fourth “R” to the basic skills taught in education—reading, ‘riting, ’rithmetic, and resonance!

Amy Banks, M.D., has devoted her career to understanding the neurobiology of relationships. She was an instructor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School and is the Director of Advanced Training at the Jean Baker Miller Training Institute (JBMTI) at the Wellesley Centers for Women at Wellesley College. She is the author with Leigh Ann Hirschman of the forthcoming book, Four Ways to Click: Rewire your Brain for Stronger, More Rewarding Relationships (Penguin Random House).

 

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mlk-quoteOn King Day, Thinking about Social Movement

The past year has generated national and international soul searching on the theme of social movement. In the U.S., events as diverse as the multiple police shootings of unarmed Black men, the killings of police officers on patrol, domestic violence incidents involving professional athletes, and misogynistic serial killings of women, have left us wondering who we are as a nation. Around the world, events such as the mass kidnapping of African schoolgirls, the shootings of journalists in Europe, and the rise of religious extremist violence in general, have shocked and outraged us. Many people are wondering what forms of mobilization can be effective in today’s world. We scratch our heads over the fact that, while obvious progress has been made on many social justice fronts, new and worse hate-based acts of violence – indeed, new horrors – seem to crop up every day and everywhere. There is a tendency, quite natural and laudable, to reach back for familiar forms of social movement – such as protest – and to update them (for example, through social media). But is this enough and, more importantly, is it really effective? Is this really all we can do? In honor of the great visionary thinker and agent of social transformation, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., whose legacy we celebrate today, I have a few thoughts.

I’d like to begin with a premise, perhaps controversial: We have no enemies. No matter how much we dislike or disagree with someone else’s point of view, we are still brothers and sisters. No matter how gravely someone crosses a line we would not cross or commits an act we see as unconscionable, we are still part of one human family. Admittedly, this is difficult. For starters, it is natural to recoil from things that offend our sensibilities, through whatever process of socialization we came to hold those sensibilities. Stated differently, we have to work to try to understand things that are outside our ken of acceptability. But, I argue, this work is worth it, because it makes possible the beginnings of dialogue – dialogue that can bring us together, ultimately transforming hearts and minds. Without the attempt to understand someone else’s point of view, dialogue never begins. Yet, once dialogue commences, transformative points of commonality can be discovered, leading to social change. Sometimes it is just the simple, everyday act of talking with someone that one might not otherwise talk to that launches the chain reaction of change.

BlogPullQuote1.19.15The story of Xernona Clayton and Calvin Craig bears this out beautifully. Xernona Clayton was a civil rights activist who worked for the Southern Christian Leadership Conference alongside Dr. King, and, in 1967, she became the first Black woman in the Southeast to have her own television show, The Xernona Clayton Show. Around this same time, she was appointed by then Mayor of Atlanta, Ivan Allen, as community affairs director for the Model Cities program. There she met Calvin Craig, a heavy equipment operator who happened also to be the Grand Dragon of the Ku Klux Klan and the chair of the Model Cities program in one of the five communities within her jurisdiction. “I don’t know how you’re all going to get along,” the Mayor told Clayton. She said, “I don’t run away from people.” At one of their meetings, Clayton daringly and only half-jokingly told Craig that, “Before this project is over, I’ll not only have you eating at my house, I’ll have you eating out of my hand!”

Over the course of a convivial relationship, they found common cause in their Christianity (both belonged to Baptist denominations) and a shared sense of humor. To everyone’s surprise, in 1968, shortly before Martin Luther King, Jr.’s assassination, Calvin Craig publicly announced that he was leaving the Klan because his views had changed. He credited his change of heart to his friendship with Xernona Clayton. Clayton was poised to introduce Craig to Martin Luther King, Jr., who, after some hesitancy, agreed to meet with the man, but fate would not have it, as King was assassinated just days later in Memphis. The night of King’s death, Craig came to King’s home to pay respects. Afraid or ashamed to approach the door, he stood in the yard until someone gave the message to Mrs. Coretta Scott King that Craig was there. She invited him in, but still Craig refused – perhaps his own way of showing respect for Dr. King.

Craig’s obituary reveals that, over time, he would again both join and denounce the Klan. However, an interview with his daughter, Gail Craig Myers, reveals the extent to which Calvin Craig was transformed by his friendship with Xernona Clayton. To quote Myers, speaking of Xernona Clayton, “[Y]ou healed my father and cleansed our family.” This is a strong statement of transformation – a testament to the power of friendship, and a testimony to the power of non-oppositional approaches to social justice and social change, and to the healing power of racial amity – America’s “other tradition” – as a framework for shifting race relations. It is also a testament to the power of everyday acts that change hearts and minds – a reminder that we cannot rely solely on politics and policy if we truly want enduring peace and justice.

So, on this King Day, I am asking you to consider with me the power of connection, the power of reaching out – beyond our comfort zones – to acknowledge one another’s full humanity and to try, in a new way, to build the world that we’d like to live in. I’m asking us to imagine activism without enemies – to never lose sight of the fact that, no matter how hard things get, we are all in this together. It is certainly an extension of Dr. King’s legacy, enlarging the “Beloved Community” to ultimately include all of us. I dare everyone of us to try it and see where we are this time next year!

Layli Maparyan, Ph.D. is the Katherine Stone Kaufmann ’67 Executive Director of the Wellesley Centers for Women and a Professor of Africana Studies at Wellesley College. Her scholar-activist work interweaves threads from the social sciences and the critical disciplines, incorporating basic and applied platforms around a common theme of integrating identities and communities in peaceable, ecologically sound, and self-actualizing ways.

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AisforAccept“A” is for Accepted

I was many things at ten years old, but one thing I wasn't was accepted. My family moved to a new town that summer—it was 1972—and on the first day of school when the school bell rang I stood in the middle of the girls’ line anxiously waiting to meet my new classmates. As I was studying my shoes I heard the laughter and the whispering, “What is that new boy doing in the girls line!” They were talking about me, well-dressed in boys clothing. I was humiliated, filled with shame, desperate to go back to my old school where people knew and accepted me. It was a long year of pain, accentuated by my teacher who routinely tried to force me to join the Girl Scouts.

This memory popped back into my mind when I first discovered social pain overlap theory (SPOT) by Eisenberger and Lieberman at UCLA. These researchers study the brain in social situations. They devised a clever experiment during which people were asked to join a virtual cyberball game on a computer screen. As the game progresses, the research subject is attached to a functional brain imaging machine. Now, being left out of a cyberball toss experiment where you do not even know or see the other players is nothing compared to my year of ridicule and ostracism in fifth grade, nor does it compare to the many forms of being socially rejected from bullying, to racism and homophobia, but still, this rather mild social exclusion told these researchers something very important: Being left out hurts most people. They feel uncomfortable, unsettled, irritated… distressed. The next step was to see what area of the brain was activated with this distress.

BlogPullQuote1.15.15This is where the story gets really interesting. The area that lit up when a subject was excluded is a strip of brain called the dorsal anterior cingulate gyrus (dACC). The dACC already had been mapped as the area of the brain that is activated when a person is distressed by physical pain. To humans, being socially excluded is so important that it uses the same neurological pathways used to register when you are in danger from a physical injury or illness. Remember the old saying, “sticks and stones will break your bones and names will never hurt you”? Not true. It should have been “sticks and stones will break you bones and names will hurt you too!”

The human nervous system has evolved to be held within the safety of safe relationships. When we drift away from our group or are pushed out, when we are ridiculed, bullied, or shunned it creates real pain. This happens to individuals within groups and to groups of people within the larger society. SPOT theory confirms that people who live in glass houses shouldn’t throw stones—but it also tells us that we all live in glass houses, we are all vulnerable to the pain of being left out. It is simply how we are wired.

Amy Banks, M.D., has devoted her career to understanding the neurobiology of relationships. She was an instructor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School and is the Director of Advanced Training at the Jean Baker Miller Training Institute (JBMTI) at the Wellesley Centers for Women at Wellesley College. She is the author with Leigh Ann Hirschman of the forthcoming book, Four Ways to Click: Rewire your Brain for Stronger, More Rewarding Relationships (Penguin Random House).

 

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blog1.5“C” is for Calm—Four Ways to Click

Twenty-five years ago, when I was studying the human nervous system in medical school, I learned that the body has an automatic system running in the back ground 24/7—the autonomic nervous system—like the system that runs in the back ground of your computer updating time and date without needing to be asked. I was taught that the autonomic nervous system had two branches with opposite functions. The sympathetic nervous system (SNS) keeps you awake, alert, and engaged in life when it is running at a steady level, while the parasympathetic nervous system (PNS) helps you relax and rejuvenate yourself after a period of activity.

In popular science the SNS and the PNS are associated with their most dramatic functions—the fight, flight, or freeze responses that are activated when a person is threatened. If a bear charges you on a hike or your boss yells at you at work, bam, your SNS fires causing energy and blood flow to be diverted to your large muscles, heart, and lungs. You automatically assess the situation and either gear up for a fight or run like hell away from the threat. On the other hand, if you come across a mother bear with her cubs and she is standing over you ready to pounce and there is nowhere to run or your spouse comes home drunk and mean again and has a history of attacking you, your parasympathetic nervous system might activate causing you to freeze and even fall on the spot as your heart and respiratory rate decrease dramatically and your body’s pain BlogPullQuote1.5.15killers flood your system buffering the pain. Neither of these reactions are under your conscious control. You are automatically protected.

What happens, though, when what you are facing is a kind, welcoming face or your favorite pet? Do you need to then rely on conscious functioning, do you need to think about it before you act and engage? According to Stephen Porges, the answer is “non.” He has discovered a third branch of the autonomic nervous system—one he calls the smart vagus nerve—that innervates the muscles in the face, throat, vocal chords, even the tiny muscles in your inner ear. The smart vagus balances the SNS and PNS and gives us automatic responses to safety. Imagine meeting your best friend—chances are your mouth breaks into a smile, your eyebrows raise, and you tune in and listen a little more attentively. You share stories and maybe even eat a meal together. All of these activities stimulate the smart vagus nerve which travels to the heart and lungs and tells the SNS and PNS they are not needed. You feel calmer.

The capacity to feel calm in a healthy relationship is as natural and automatic as the ability to feel terrified in Friday the 13th. It is how we are wired. A culture that teaches “self-regulation” and finding comfort by standing on your own two feet over stimulates your SNS making it harder to recognize a healthy connection. In Four Ways to Click: Rewire your Brain for Stronger, More Rewarding Relationships you can evaluate your neural pathways for connection and strategize ways to rebalance your autonomic nervous system to help you feel responsive and less reactive in your healthiest relationships.

Amy Banks, M.D., has devoted her career to understanding the neurobiology of relationships. She was an instructor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School and is the Director of Advanced Training at the Jean Baker Miller Training Institute (JBMTI) at the Wellesley Centers for Women at Wellesley College. She is the author with Leigh Ann Hirschman of the forthcoming book, Four Ways to Click: Rewire your Brain for Stronger, More Rewarding Relationships (Penguin Random House).

 

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2014RoundupA 2014 Round-up

Below are links to two articles from good friends of the Wellesley Centers for Women—Susan McGee Bailey and Alex Sanger. Susan is the former, long-time executive director of the Wellesley Centers for Women (WCW); Alex is chair of the International Planned Parenthood Council and member of the WCW Council of Advisors. In their respective blog articles, they share their perspectives on the year 2014.

In her latest piece on Girl w/ Pen, Susan writes, "Hanukkah, then Christmas next week, followed by the start of a new year—a time of hope and beginnings. Why doesn’t it feel that way? For the past several days I’ve been searching for the bright spots. The ones that can provide the energy we need in the midst of so much darkness. Not an easy task. Each day new horrors erupt: the second anniversary of the Sandy Hook massacre and still no reasonable national gun control legislation; free passes for racial biases and deadly police brutality; the sickening slaughter of school children in Pakistan; ongoing revelations of rape in the US military and on university campuses. Negative news can so easily obliterate positive signs in the struggles for equal rights. But all around us there is tangible evidence of the many ways feminist work contributes to positive progress for everyone... You can read the full article online.

In his latest piece on Huffington Post, Alex writes, "Once again, we've had a year of ups and downs, a year of strong stands for women's rights and crushing defeats. Here's a quick run-down of some of the most memorable moments of 2014. Last month, the Chamber of Deputies in the Dominican Republic put forward a measure to reinforce—and strengthen—the country's existing ban on abortions in all circumstances. Thankfully, Dominican President Danilo Medina vetoed the measure, urging legislators in a letter to decriminalize abortions in cases where the woman's life is at risk or in cases of rape, incest, or fetus malformation. " You can read the full article online.

What do you think have been notable events or moments of the past year? Share with us!

The mission of the Wellesley Centers for Women at Wellesley College is to advance gender equality, social justice, and human wellbeing through high quality research, theory, and action programs. Since 1974, work has generated changes in attitudes, practices, and public policy.

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LGBTblogThe Greying of the LGBTQ Community

October was LGBTQ History Month. We should continue to celebrate, reflect, and get back to work!

It has been less than 50 years since Stonewall, the start of the current LGBTQ Rights Movement. There have been trials and tribulations, along with celebrations. Today, over 30 states grant same-sex couples the right to marry legally. Today, social acceptability has permeated society (Pew Research Center, 2011). Today, groups, businesses, and academic institutions supporting LGBT rights and LGBTQ youth, all with the message of equity and equality, have increased exponentially (HRC, 2014). Curriculum teaching about inclusiveness is making schools safer and more hospitable than they were even 5 years ago.

These accomplishments are certainly remarkable considering a mere 50 years ago homosexuality was considered a mental disorder. Gay people feared getting fired from their jobs and, often, only a suspicion of homosexual behavior was enough. Religions condemned homosexuality as an abomination, an affront to the natural order of things. And AIDS meant social isolation and certain death.

With so many improvements in equality and rights for LGBTQ communities since Stonewall, one might wonder what else there is left to do. One area that is unaddressed and under-researched is the challenges LGBT elderly people face. More than six million LGBTQ individuals will be in the “65+” age bracket by 2030 (SAGE, 2014). This, of course, provides some trepidations -- and opportunities—for LGBTQ communities, policymakers, and the general population.

BlogPullQuote11.2.14In the last couple of years, more research has surfaced regarding LGBTQ elderly people, which provides a sobering look at their attitudes and thoughts about aging. The first and obvious concern is aging in a society and community that places a high value on youth, leaving the elderly feeling useless and insignificant (Fox, 2007). This is both within the LGBTQ communities and in the general population. Ageism is pervasive in the U.S.

The second concern is discrimination or perceived discrimination at long-term facilities and healthcare institutions. SAGE (2014) reported 40% of lesbian and gay elderly people do not tell healthcare providers they are homosexual, and healthcare providers just assume they are heterosexual. Moreover, in long-term care settings same-sex couples are denied same-space living arrangements more often than heterosexual couples (Stein, Beckerman & Sherman, 2010). In other words, heterosexism entitles you to live your life with your significant other, especially in the final years.

A final concern is that LGBT elders worry about financial insolvency more often and believe they will not be able to retire or will outlive the meager retirement savings they have. In addition, current retirees have lived through years of employment discrimination (SAGE, 2014). Even today, there are still some states that don’t ban discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation in their employment discrimination laws (HRC, 2014). About 15% of LGBT women and men 65 or older live in poverty, compared to only 10% of heterosexual men (Table 4; Badgett, Durso, & Schneebaum, 2013). In couples over 65, female same-sex couples are almost twice as likely as heterosexual couples, or male same-sex couples, to be low-income, reflecting the double impact of women’s lower earnings compared to men(Table 9; Badgett, Durso, & Schneebaum, 2013).

October’s LGBTQ History Month is about celebration, reflection, and work. We should celebrate that elderly couples are now, legally, entitled to their married spouses Social Security benefits when one spouse dies. Moreover, we should celebrate that the Affordable Healthcare Act is providing many people, especially transgender older adults, with needed healthcare. Finally, we should celebrate that LGBTQ issues are being discussed and acknowledged with the federal, state, and local agencies. In the span of less than 50 years, LGBTQ communities have gone from despised to celebrated and are seen as important members of the global community. Reflection comes as we realize there is more to be done to truly create equality for all members of society.

Let’s get back to work. We need to call members of Congress and demand that they pass the Older Americans Act (the premier elder care law) with LGBTQ elders added to the definition of vulnerable populations. We must call on state and local decision makers to pass anti-discrimination laws and create new minimum wage laws, so that pay is equalized for males and females, LGBT and heterosexual, gender conforming or nonconforming. Furthermore, let’s do what we do best, continue to initiate meaningful discussions on heterosexism, sexism, and ageism.

Brian Fuss, M.P.A., a Research Fellow at the Wellesley Centers for Women at Wellesley College, is working on his doctorate in Public Policy and Administration. The working title of his dissertation is Public Policy Recommendations for Florida’s LGBT Elderly Population Residing in Rural and Suburban Areas.


Additional References:

Fox, R.C. (2007) Gay grows up, Journal of Homosexuality, 52, 33-61. DOI:10.1300/J082v52n03_03

Stein, G. L., Beckerman, N. L., & Sherman, P.A. (2010). Lesbian and gay elders and long-term care: Identifying the unique psychosocial perspectives and challenges. Journal of Gerontological Social Work 53, 421-435. DOI:10.1080/01634372.2010.496478

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ssparentsSeeking LGBT Parents in History

Opponents of LGBT equality often try to make LGBT parents seem like a new and untested phenomenon, and therefore something to be avoided. The history of LGBT parents and our children, however, goes back further than one might think.

The Greek poet Sappho, whose island home of Lesbos gave us the term “lesbian,” may have had a daughter named “Cleis.” That would mean that the history of LGBT parents goes back to around 600 BCE.

The existence of her daughter is only attested through a few fragments, though, making it far from certain. It’s also anachronistic to apply modern identity terms to historical figures, even such a lesbian icon as Sappho. The possibility of her existence, however, should encourage us to reflect that the history of parents who fall under a broad LGBT umbrella (not tied to modern conceptions of the terms) likely goes back as far as the history of LGBT people as a whole. They may not have been “out and proud” like many modern LGBT parents, but we can still see them as their forebears.

Sticking with better documented cases, Oscar Wilde was the father of two boys with his wife Constance Lloyd, and apparently a loving one. His son Vyvyan, in his book Son of Oscar Wilde, wrote about Wilde’s relationship with him and his brother, “He was a hero to us both. . . . a real companion to us. . . . He would go down on all fours on the nursery floor, being in turn a lion, a wolf, a horse, caring nothing for his usually immaculate appearance.” Alas, when the boys were eight and nine, their mother took them to Switzerland after Wilde’s trial for “gross indecency” (having same-sex relations) and they never saw him again.

BlogPullQuote10.28.14Vita Sackville-West had relationships with several women, including fellow writers Virginia Woolf and Violet Trefusis, and had two children with her husband, Harold George Nicolson (who also had same-sex relationships). Her son Nigel Nicolson later used her account of the affair with Trefusis as the heart of a book about his parents, Portrait of a Marriage. There, he called his mother’s description of the affair “one of the most moving pieces that she ever wrote.” While he acknowledged both parents’ same-sex relationships, he also said their marriage “became stronger and finer as a result.” Their love affairs were mere “ports of call,” but it was “to the harbour that each returned.” Nevertheless, it is easy to see Nicolson as the product of parents who fall under the broad LGBT umbrella, and to place another brushstroke in our picture of LGBT family history.

Looking only at parents who had a more modern sense of their LGBT identities, out LGBT parents go back to the very start of the LGBT civil rights movement. Most still had their children within the context of different-sex marriages, but were more likely than in earlier times to leave those marriages, even though this often meant losing custody of their children. Del Martin, one of the founders in 1955 of Daughters of Bilitis, the first national lesbian rights organization in the U.S., was one such parent. Not surprisingly, her organization held some of the first known discussion groups on lesbian motherhood—way back in 1956. (See Daniel Winunwe Rivers’ Radical Relations, which I reviewed in the Women’s Review of Books earlier this year.)

Even the term “gayby boom”—referring to same-sex couples starting their families together—is already over two decades old, dating to at least March 1990, when Newsweek reported, “a new generation of gay parents has produced the first-ever ‘gayby boom.’” That means that many of the children from that boom are themselves now adults—while many of the first generation of out parents are becoming grandparents.

Think of it this way: the fictional Heather who had two mommies was in preschool in Lesléa Newman’s classic 1989 children’s book. If she were real, she’d now be in her late 20s.

Those who continue to insist that LGBT parents are not good for children have failed to realize that if that were true (even leaving aside the extensive social science research to the contrary), there would be many more maladjusted adults running around. Analyses from UCLA’s Williams Institute have found that currently, between 2.3 and 4 million adults have an LGBT parent. If they suffered harm because of that, someone surely would have noticed the connection by now.

As a lesbian mom, I believe that learning the history of LGBT parents and their children can also help us feel less alone, less like we are the first to face each challenge. Having confidence that others have succeeded before us can translate into confidence in our parenting skills, which in turn can positively impact our children.

Knowing the struggles—and triumphs—of LGBT parents in the past can also give us hope and strength in overcoming the challenges—legal, political, social, and emotional—that we still face.

And seeing how the early organizations for LGBT parents helped shape the overall LGBT rights movement of today (a story told in Rivers’ book and in the 2006 documentary Mom’s Apple Pie: The Heart of the Lesbian Mothers’ Custody Movement) can inspire us to keep contributing to that broader effort, even as we balance the demands of work and family.

LGBT History Month for this year may be drawing to a close, but the work of exploring our history must continue.

Dana Rudolph is the online content manager for the National SEED Project at the Wellesley Centers for Women at Wellesley College. She is also the founder and publisher of Mombian, a GLAAD Media Award-winning blog and associated newspaper column for lesbian moms and other LGBT parents. She has a BA summa cum laude from Wellesley College and an M.Phil in Modern History from Oxford University.

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middleschoolkidsLet’s Talk about Sex

October is Let’s Talk Month, part of a national campaign to encourage families to talk with teens about sex and relationships. In March 2013, I shared tips on how parents can talk with their teens about sex. Today, I’m going to pass on some reasons why talking with middle schoolers about sex is important and how this may support younger teens’ health.

Here’s what’s important to know:

Almost one-third of teens have sex by 9th grade. A recent nationwide study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that 28% of girls and 32% of boys reported having had sex by the 9th grade.

Early sex puts teens at risk for poor school and health outcomes. Teens who have sex at an early age are more likely to drop out of school, get a sexually transmitted infection, or have an unintended pregnancy than teens who wait until they are older to have sex.

Talking with teens about sex can make a difference. Parents talking with teens about sex and relationships can make it more likely that teens will wait to have sex and, when they do have sex, that they will use protection.

BlogPullQuote10.22.14It’s important to talk with teens before they have sex. Research tells us that it is critical for teens to learn about sexual issues from a trusted adult before they have sex.

Here's what we learned from our evaluation of Get Real,* a comprehensive middle school sex education program:

    Sex education that supports parent-teen conversations about sex and relationships can help to delay sex. In schools where the Get Real sex education program was taught, 16% fewer boys and 15% fewer girls had sex compared to boys and girls in schools that taught sex education as usual. This means that sex education during middle school can support teens’ sexual health.

    Don’t forget to talk with your sons about sex! Boys who completed Get Real family activities in the 6th grade—which focused on a wide range of issues, from anatomy to relationship values—were more likely to delay sex in 8th grade than boys who didn’t complete them. Many parents talk with their daughters about sex earlier and more often than their sons. Talking with sons early and often can help to support their sexual health, too.

Communication is key! Let’s Talk!

Jennifer Grossman, Ph.D. is a research scientist at the Wellesley Centers for Women at Wellesley College. She co-directed an evaluation of a middle school sex education curriculum and leads a project investigating sex communication in the nuclear family and beyond and the implications for health interventions.

* Get Real: Comprehensive Sex Education That Works is a middle school program, developed by the Planned Parenthood League of Massachusetts, that delivers accurate, age-appropriate information and emphasizes healthy relationship skills and family involvement.

 

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MYPeacePrizePhotoBrave New Girls:

Let’s Celebrate U.N. International Day of the Girl by Supporting the Malala Yousafzais of Our World


This article was originally posted on October 11, 2012 on the Women Change Worlds blog. Today, Malala Yousafzai, was named a recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize. She has also been awarded the National Youth Peace Prize, the Sakharov Prize, and the Simone de Beauvoir Prize.

I’ll bet that when the Taliban decided to fire their guns at 14-year old Malala Yousafzai, it didn’t occur to them that they might be making her the cause celebre of the U.N. International Day of the Girl, which is October 11th. Although the Taliban might argue otherwise, Malala is everything a girl should be – intelligent, inquisitive, bold, brave, and a concerned, aware world citizen. She embodies and dares to live up to that oft-repeated maxim, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”

What does it say about us when the global war on women – the ages-old attempt to keep women down through violence, silencing, discrimination, and worse – stoops down to attack young girls who haven’t even yet reached womanhood? I say “us,” because, on some level, we are all accountable for the collective consciousness that excuses violence against women in its many shapeshifting forms. No country, no population, is immune. Whenever something like this happens – something terrible and obvious, like the attack on Malala Yousafzai – all of us should stop in our tracks and ask ourselves, what am I doing that keeps the tacit acceptance of violence against women – and now girls – alive in the world…and how can I change that??

Malala Yousaufzai has been fighting for girls’ education in Pakistan.  Girls all over the world deserve education, and even though some challenging impediments have been identified by researchers and others, there is no excuse in this day and age for girls to be kept from schooling. None. The U.N. has made girls education a tenet (in Targets 2 and 3, to be specific) of its Millennium Development Goals – and in case you were wondering, we only have three more years, until 2015, before we are expected to achieve them. Malala Yousafzai is in a position to challenge the rest of us as women’s activist Audre Lorde famously did when she wrote, “I’m doing my work … are you doing yours??”

What are we doing to help Malala Yousafzai’s dream – and MDGs 2 and 3 – to become a reality? Not only in Pakistan, but everywhere, all over the world, including the United States, many girls still languish, along with their male peers, in indecently substandard schools and where staggering rates of sexual harassment and violence negatively impact social-emotional development and learning. The issue of a right to education doesn’t just apply to developing nations – it applies, too, in the developed world where different subpopulations often have differential access to a good education. We must look outward and inward as we reflect on these questions.

Girl activists like Malala are becoming more common and more visible in their efforts to create that “another world” that’s so famously “possible” – a world in which they would like to live, a world that will not only welcome their talents, their full participation, and their leadership, but also a world that will keep them safe and healthy, upholding their dignity and equality. In the United States, for example, I think of girls like Mary Pat Hector who, at age 10, founded Youth in Action USA (she’s now 14, like Malala) to fight violence in her community and communities nationwide. Her organization, which now boasts chapters in seven U.S. states, encourages children to get involved in change through volunteerism, peace rallies, and community advocacy trainings. I also think of girls like Hannah Salwen who, also at age 14, authored The Power of Half as a way to generate social-change
brave-new-girlscapital. It was witnessing homelessness in her city that inspired her to figure out how she and her family could make a real difference, and her “power of half” principle has since become a movement.

Malala, Mary Pat, Hannah, and so many more… These are girls who can’t wait – who are taking the bull of the global conditions they care about by the horns – perhaps because they don’t trust us to do it for them, or perhaps because they are simply aware of their own power and genius. Whatever the case may be, we must support them and help them build the brave new world that they would like to grow up in, because the world they envision is not just a world that will be good for them, it’s a world that will be better for everyone.

The U.N. International Day of the Girl is our opportunity not only to celebrate girls, but also to listen to them, lift them up, and ask them what they need from us to do more of the good that they are doing. I could have spent this column railing against the Taliban and the outrage of their violent attack, but how much better to highlight the work of Malala Yousafzai and girls like her. Let’s celebrate the International Day of the Girl by joining them and supporting them in their audacious, courageous work to change the world!

Layli Maparyan, Ph.D., is the Executive Director of the Wellesley Centers for Women at Wellesley College.

 

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OctABblogSupportive Human Relationships: Often Overlooked in Our Search for Quick Fixes

October 10th is Mental Health Awareness Day.

We live in a time of easy access and quick fixes. People expect to be able to stream a video in less than 60 seconds, to have the entire written history of the world at their fingertips, even to have a complete dinner delivered in under 30 minutes. Given the mind-numbing pace of life, perhaps I shouldn’t be surprised by my clients’ impatience and disappointment when I offer an antidepressant to treat disabling anxiety or severe depression that takes three to six weeks to kick in. Just 100 years ago they would be resigned to a life of tormenting melancholia. Sure, there are new treatments on the horizon that promise quicker response times. Maybe ketamine will be the Netflix of mental health treatment. Most people overlook the one thing that unequivocally helps our emotional and physical health--supportive human relationships.

The fact that healthy human relationships are central to all human growth and development is not self-evident in a culture that values and promotes separating from and competing with others as the pinnacle of maturity. But research now shows the BlogPullQuote10.3.14human nervous system is literally wired to function best when in healthy relationships. If you do not believe it, try a very simple experiment to see and feel the impact of healthy relationships on your mind and body. Close your eyes and think about a positive interaction you have had with a friend or partner. As you play it out in your mind, watch how your body changes. Most people describe an openness in their chest, a smile forming on their face, a lift in their mood. This simple visualization, something I call a positive relational moment, allows you to tap into the healing physiology of connection and changes your neural chemistry just as clearly as Ativan or Prozac--but with fewer side effects! In honor of National Mental Health Day, reach out to others, engage in healthy interactions, and build new positive relational moments. It is perhaps the ultimate win-win in this culture of competition.

Amy Banks, M.D., is the Director of Advanced Training at the Jean Baker Miller Training Institute at the Wellesley Centers for Women, Wellesley College. She is the author with Leigh Ann Hirschman of Four Ways to Click: Rewiring your Brain for Stronger, More Rewarding Relationships, forthcoming from Penguin Random House (Feb. 2015).

 

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sept2014blogimageLet’s Celebrate ALL Students during National School Success Month

September is National School Success month, a time when parents are focused on helping their children begin a positive start to the new school year. At this time I urge you to consider those children who, through no fault of their own, are struggling to succeed academically because of exposure to early adversity and trauma. WCW has begun a research partnership with The Home for Little Wanderers, a child and family services agency in Massachusetts that was founded in 1799 and provides a continuum of care for 4,000 children annually. Children served who are most at risk are those in foster care and/or enrolled in The Home’s residential educational settings. These students have experienced significant trauma and neglect, and have complex psychological and educational needs. Posttraumatic stress (PTSD) symptoms as a result of toxic stress may inhibit their capacity for learning, interfering with the ability to maintain attention, disrupting cognitive processes and memory, increasing hypervigilance and reactivity that present as behavioral problems, and too often leaving students with a feeling of hopelessness for the future. These are students at high risk for dropping out of school, despite their intellectual capabilities.

Together, the Wellesley Centers for Women (WCW) and The Home for Little Wanderers are dedicated to better understanding the barriers that get in the way of BlogPullQuote9.19.14academic success for students who have experienced early adversity and what classroom and therapeutic supports are most helpful for bolstering learning. Special education services for these students are provided by licensed teachers, dedicated and knowledgeable staff who have been trained in evidence-based approaches for PTSD treatment. Psychologists and educators are learning more about the elasticity of the brain and about efficacy for certain strength-based mental health supports, such as Cognitive Behavioral Therapy. Yet, there is much research to be done to understand how exactly these early traumatic experiences influence brain development and cognitive processes. In our initial collaborative investigation, presented at the American Psychological Association Annual Convention this past August, WCW and The Home researchers found that students with a greater number of various traumatic experiences also had more severe PTSD symptoms, and in addition, these PTSD symptoms were associated with students’ ratings of impairment in doing their schoolwork. Over time some students showed decreases in PTSD symptoms and its interference with schoolwork. As we move forward in our collaborative research, our aim is to increase knowledge about predictors of these patterns of improvement so that more students have opportunities for success.

Michelle Porche, Ed.D is an associate director at the Wellesley Centers for Women and senior research scientist studying academic achievement for young children and adolescents. In her investigations of achievement, the role of gender and socio-emotional factors, including childhood adversity, play a major part in her work.

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depressedteenSuicide Prevention: The Depression Link

This is a repost from an article originally published on this blog September 6, 2013.

National Suicide Prevention Week (September 8-14) is a time to both raise awareness of suicide as a national public health issue, and to think critically about how suicide can be prevented. In the United States, suicide is the second leading cause of death among adolescents (Hoyert & Xu, 2012), and, in 2011, nearly 16 percent of adolescents in the United States reported seriously considering suicide. When thinking about preventing adolescent suicide, it is important to consider factors that increase the risk of suicidal thoughts and behaviors, such as depression. Suicidal thinking is a symptom of depression, and over half of the adolescents who completed suicide had a mood disorder at the time (Bridge, Goldstein & Brent, 2006; Nock et al., 2013). Fortunately, a number of researchers have developed empirically-supported interventions to prevent the onset of depression in teens, and prevention efforts that target adolescents at risk for depression may ultimately prove helpful in preventing suicidal behaviors as well. During this national week of suicide prevention awareness, it is important to recognize the link between depressive illness and suicide in youth, and the promising role of depression prevention in potentially preventing suicidal behavior.

Most of us bring our children to see their doctors annually, because prevention-focused well-child care is a cornerstone of pediatric practice. Unfortunately, prevention is generally not part of the equation when it comes to youth mental health. With limited health care dollars and limited mental health resources available, clinicians and policymakers tend to focus on alleviating mental health concerns once they arise. Yet research suggests that many young people do NOT get treatment for mental health concerns once they arise, and mental health concerns, such as depression, are associated not only with suicide risk, but also with long-term adverse impacts on educational attainment, relationship functioning, risk of substance abuse, and future depressive episodes, even among those who receive treatment. Moreover, of those teens who DO receive treatment for depression, only about half fully recover and, among those who do recover, relapse is quite common.

BlogPullQuote9.6Treating youth depression once it emerges may be much more distressing, and much less effective, than identifying early symptoms of illness and treating them before they develop into a full-blown disorder. Prevention approaches have the potential to reach a large number of adolescents, and may be more acceptable than treatment because services can be rendered in non-clinical settings (e.g., schools, primary care settings), and do not require adolescents to identify themselves as ill.

So how can adolescent depression be prevented? The core of many depression prevention programs is resilience. Not all adolescents with risk factors for depression develop the disorder; the ones who do not develop depression are resilient, which means they have the emotional skills and/or the social supports to “bounce back” from adversity. Many programs to prevent adolescent depression are designed to teach coping and emotional regulation skills, and/or to strengthen supportive relationships, in order to provide youth at elevated risk with the tools they need to be resilient.

Research on the prevention of youth depression is quite encouraging! For example, in our longitudinal, multi-site study of adolescents at risk for depression, we found that teens who participated in a group cognitive-behavioral prevention program were less likely to experience a depressive disorder at nine- (Garber et al., 2009) and 32- (Beardslee et al., in press) months follow-up, relative to at-risk teens who were assigned to a treatment-as-usual control group. Likewise, our colleagues working on the Penn Resiliency Project have found that children and adolescents who participate in their school-based cognitive-behavioral program are less likely to experience depressive symptoms than are children and adolescents assigned to control conditions. Similarly, in a study of Interpersonal Psychotherapy approaches to preventing youth depression, Young and colleagues found that teens who participated in a skills-based intervention targeting interpersonal role disputes, role transitions and interpersonal deficits reported fewer depressive symptoms at six-months follow-up than teens who were assigned to a school counseling control group.

Here at WCW, we are currently studying the efficacy of a primary-care, Internet-based depression-prevention program for adolescents who are at risk for the development of depression, based on a past history of depression and/or current symptoms of depressive disorder. While many of these youth depression prevention programs are still being evaluated in randomized controlled research trials, early results suggest that prevention programs may work. It seems we can indeed provide teens with strategies that they can use over time, as they encounter stress and challenging life events, so that they are able to stay healthy and avoid the onset of significant mental health concerns.

What are the risks for depression in adolescents? When should you be worried about your teen? When we talk about risks for depression, we often think in terms of specific factors (i.e., factors identified through empirical research to be associated specifically with increased risk for youth depression) and nonspecific factors (i.e., factors that are associated with increased risk for a range of disorders, including depression). Specific risk factors for adolescent depression include having low self-esteem, being female, developing a negative body image, low social support, a negative cognitive style, and ineffective coping. The strongest specific risk factor for the development of depression, above and beyond these other factors, is having a parent with depressive illness. In fact, offspring of depressed parents are at about a two- to four-fold increased risk of developing depressive disorders, relative to children of parents without depression. Nonspecific risk factors that also increase risk of youth depression include poverty, exposure to violence, social isolation, child maltreatment, and family breakup.

Although the presence of these risk factors is associated with an increased risk for youth depression, as noted above, many at-risk children are resilient and never develop a depressive disorder. Having supportive adults present, strong family relationships, strong peer relationships, coping skills, and skills in emotion regulation all can contribute to resiliency. Even depressed parents can promote resilience in their teens by encouraging teens to engage in outside activities, maintain supportive relationships, and recognize themselves as separate from issues and concerns that are affecting other family members.

How can you recognize signs and symptoms of depression in your child, and how can you help? Depressed teens are often sad or irritable, and may exhibit a range of additional symptoms, such as withdrawal from friends and usual activities, sleep difficulties (i.e., difficulty sleeping or sleeping all the time), somatic complaints (i.e., headaches, stomach aches), poor school performance, self-critical talk, changes in eating patterns, difficulty sitting still, and may start writing or thinking about death. If you are concerned about your teen, then express your concern openly and honestly. Tell your child that you care, and that you want to help. Don’t be afraid to ask your child if he is experiencing suicidal thoughts – asking will NOT make him contemplate suicide or take his own life. Reach out to your child’s pediatrician for assistance and referrals. Let your child know that treatments are available, and that you are going to work together to get your child the help she needs.

National Suicide Prevention Week is an opportune time to consider the many ways that suicidal thoughts and actions can be combated, including preventing the onset of depression in adolescents, and getting teens help if they are depressed already.

Tracy Gladstone, Ph.D. is a Senior Research Scientist and Director of the Robert S. and Grace W. Stone Primary Prevention Initiatives at the Wellesley Centers for Women at Wellesley College. The Stone Primary Prevention Initiatives focus on research and evaluation designed to prevent the onset of mental health concerns in children and adolescents.

References:

Beardslee, W.R., Brent, D.A., Weersing, V.R., Clarke, G.N., Porta, G., Hollon, S.D., Gladstone, T.R.G., Gallop, R., Lynch, F.L., Iyengar, S., DeBar, L., & Garber, J. (in press). Prevention of depression in at-risk adolescents: Longer-term effects. Journal of the American Medical Association Psychiatry.

Bridge, J. A., Goldstein, T. R., & Brent, D. A. (2006). Adolescent suicide and suicidal behavior. Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry, 47(3‐4), 372-394.

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (2012). Youth Risk Behavior Surveillance- United States 2011. Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report, 61(4), 1-168.

Garber, J., Clarke, G.N., Weersing, V.R., Beardslee, W.R., Brent, D.A., Gladstone, T.R.G., DeBar, L.L., Lynch, F.L., D’Angelo, E., Hollon, S.D., Shamseddeen, W., & Iyengar, S. (2009). Prevention of depression in at-risk adolescents: A randomized controlled trial. Journal of the American Medical Association, 301, 2215-2224.

Hoyert, D. L., & Xu, J. (2012). Deaths: preliminary data for 2011. National Vital Statistics Report, 61(6), 1-65.

Nock, M. K., Green, J. G., Hwang, I., McLaughlin, K. A., Sampson, N. A., Zaslavsky, A. M., & Kessler, R. C. (2013). Prevalence, correlates, and treatment of lifetime suicidal behavior among adolescents: results from the National Comorbidity Survey Replication Adolescent Supplement. JAMA: The Journal of the American Medical Association Psychiatry, 70(3), 300-310.  

 

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pensivewomanIs Stress Making Us Sick?

Recently, NPR, with the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and Harvard School of Public Health, released a poll that found that one-quarter of Americans reported that they had experienced significant amounts of stress in the previous month. That level of stress is similar to levels found in earlier polls. But is this much stress making us sick? The poll found that 70% of people experiencing high levels of stress reported that they were sleeping less--not getting enough sleep can negatively affect health. Other research tells us even more about the possible health consequences of too much stress and our capacity to cope with it. One of the top three sources of stress in the NPR poll, for individuals reporting high levels of stress, was stress from work problems. We know that jobs that are very stressful, with too much to do, can contribute to health problems, but only when those demands or challenges are not offset by the resources and authority to make decisions about the work. In fact, jobs that are very challenging--and in which workers have the authority and resources they need--are good for our health. The bad jobs are those with heavy demands that you can’t address or that never end--or those jobs that have no challenge whatsoever, that involve repetitive or boring work, with no say over what work gets done when. Not surprisingly, in the NPR poll, people in lower-paid jobs, with annual incomes under $20,000, reported more stress from work problems than did those with incomes of $50,000 or more (64% of low-income individuals reported work stress, compared to 57% of higher income people).

Another factor in whether stress makes us sick is whether the stress is chronic or from a single event. Certain life events are very stressful, such as the death of a loved one or divorce; one-in-six people reported that the most stressful event in the previous year was the death of a loved one, and fewer than one-in-ten reported a life change or transition, such as divorce, was the most stressful event. However, ongoing stressful conditions, such as chronic health problems, being a single parent following divorce, or poverty, are more likely to BlogPullQuote7.31wear away at our health and wellbeing. The NPR poll found that individuals with a chronic illness were more likely to report high stress in the previous month (36% compared to 26% overall), as were individuals living in poverty (36%) and single parents (35%). These chronic stressors tax our abilities to cope with stress. For those individuals with high levels of stress, problems with finances was one of the main sources of stress, and this was especially true for those living in poverty (70% reported financial stress), those with disabilities (64%) or in poor health (69%), and for women (58%, compared to 45% for men). Chronic stress can lead to wear and tear or allostatic load, which can suppress immune function and lead to susceptibility to disease.

The other major contributor to stress, according to the poll, was having too many responsibilities overall. While this can mean different things to different people, it’s interesting to note that women were more likely than men to say that this was one of the reasons they were so stressed in the previous month. One life situation that can give us that overload feeling is combining employment with raising a family. While many men and women find that combination to be beneficial – would you give up your family or choose to stop working? – there are circumstances when the combination can be a negative. Women and men can experience strain from the stresses of too much to do at work and at home. However, because women tend to spend more time in family labor than do men, women with young children and not enough support or resources at work or at home are particularly at risk.

Poverty, bad jobs, too many responsibilities— these can all contribute to poorer health; these stressors are not randomly experienced by everyone, but rather fall more heavily on those with less advantage and opportunity in their lives. In a 2010 review of the latest research on stress and health, Peggy Thoits argued that the greater exposure of members of less-advantaged groups (women, race-ethnic minorities, lower-income and working class individuals) to chronic or high stress was one of the reasons that we find poorer health among women, race-ethnic minorities, lower-income and working class individuals. There are many possible responses to this reality, but central to that must be recognizing the health consequences of high levels of stress and addressing some of the underlying stressors, such as inequality and injustice.

Nancy Marshall, Ed.D. is an Associate Director and Senior Research Scientist at the Wellesley Centers for Women (WCW) at Wellesley College. She leads the Work, Families and Children Team at WCW and is an Adjunct Associate Professor at Wellesley College.

 

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july29blogChild Care and the Overwhelmed Parent

Courtney Martin, a friend of the Wellesley Centers for Women, journalist, author of “Do It Anyway: The New Generation of Activists,” and one of the founding directors of the Solutions Journalism Network, is a regular contributor to the New York Times online opinion pages. In her July 24th article, she writes, "...what working mothers really need are systematic ways to find and afford safe, local care options for their kids. While many parents scramble to find care in the summer months, especially for older children out of school, it’s a year-round challenge for families with kids younger than preschool age."

Read Martin's full article,"Child Care and the Overwhelmed Parent">>

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fbthumbsFacebook: Friend or Foe

This blog post is reproduced with permission from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation in Princeton, NJ. It was first published on the Human Capital Blog.

If you were stressed out and wanted to vent to your friends about it, how would you let them know? Would you pick up the phone and talk, or text? Would you set up time to grab coffee or go for a brisk walk? Or would you post to Facebook why your day just couldn’t get any worse?

As I logged into the recent RWJF/NPR/Harvard School of Public Health-sponsored Stress in America discussion, I identified with the panelists who were dispelling stereotypes about “highly stressed” individuals being high-level executives or those at the top of the ladder. Instead of finding work-related stress as a top concern, as is often played out in the media and popular culture, the researchers were finding that individuals with health concerns, people with disabilities, and low-income individuals were experiencing the highest levels of stress. The panelists talked about the importance of qualities like resiliency and the ability to turn multiple, competing stressors into productive challenges to overcome, and the integral role of communities in shaping, buffering, and/or exacerbating stress.

We often consider our communities as living, working, playing in close physical proximity. But what about the online spaces? What about our opt-in networked friendship circles ... our cyber-audience who sign up to read our posts with mundane observations, proud revelations, and the occasional embarrassing photos?

BlogPullQuote7.24Media coverage about social media has not been kind—often linking its use with cyberbullying, sexual predators, and depression or loneliness. But recent scholarship on new media demonstrates that interpersonal communication, online and offline, plays a vital role in integrating people into their communities by helping them build support, maintain ties, and promote trust. Social media is often used to escape from the pressures of life and alter moods, to secure an audience for self-disclosures, and to widen social networks and increase social capital. The Pew Research Internet Project found that adult Facebook users are more trusting than others, have more close, core ties with their social networks, and receive more social support than non-users.

So what if we asked adolescents the same question: “If you were having a bad day and wanted to let your friends know about it, how would you let them know?”

In our current research on media and identity, we purposively sampled more than 2,300 individuals aged 12 to 25 from 47 states and 26 countries. They took an online survey that investigated how vulnerable populations (such as racial/ethnic minorities, women, adolescents, people who are lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender, those with low social status) have used the Internet and social media in healthy and unhealthy ways, particularly during times of stress. We wanted to determine how and why supportive communities could exist in personal online networks that could increase one’s resiliency in the face of challenges.

We found that when young people want to talk about a bad day, they mainly preferred in-person (69%), texting (69%), or phone call (51%) methods to reach out for help. Social media was not utilized as often to talk about stressful times—with Facebook (29%) being more popular than Twitter (7%) overall.

The Stress in America poll results found that 19 percent of adults use social media more than usual during stressful times. In our study, adolescents were significantly more likely to post to Facebook networks about their bad days than emerging adults aged 18 to 25, which can indicate that there are generational differences in how new media can be supportive.

African American participants (19%) chose Twitter to report to their networks about a bad day more often, whereas Asian Americans (40%) used Facebook more often than people of any other race/ethnicity during times of stress.

A surprisingly large number of young people (under age 25) reported that they write blogs, from a low of 37 percent of Hispanic respondents to a high of 60 percent of Asian Americans respondents. Incidentally, individuals who have ever written a blog are more likely to report being unhappy or sad than non-bloggers. Perhaps being more public online about private matters helps adolescents to know that they are not alone in their battles with stress.

Further examination of the use of new media may help us develop prevention and intervention programs and tools to guide adolescents, their parents, educators, and health care workers, and to remind ourselves how the adolescent and emerging adult years can be stressful. Perhaps logging onto one’s Facebook community and jotting down one’s thoughts could be just the right kind of coping mechanism whenever the need arises.

Linda Charmaraman, Ph.D. is a research scientist at the Wellesley Centers for Women at Wellesley College and a former National Institute of Child Health and Human Development postdoctoral scholar. She is a Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (RWJF) New Connections grantee, examining the potential of social media networks to promote resiliency in vulnerable populations.

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uganda3Open Circle Training Goes to Uganda

Two Open Circle trainers from the Open Circle Program, Jen Dirga, MSW, and Sallie Dunning, Ed.M., traveled to Uganda in May 2014 to train teachers, youth, and parents from six rural primary schools and communities through the Pearl Community Empowerment Foundation. The goal of the training was to improve the relationships between the students, teachers, and parents, and to improve academic performance.

After the training, the teachers noted in their evaluation forms that this is the first training on social and emotional learning they had ever attended.

Dirga and Dunning reflect on their experiences with Open Circle training in Uganda:

uganda1Jen Dirga

Our trainings in Amor Village were amazing. It was hard to imagine ways to transfer the practices and concepts of Open Circle to Eastern Uganda. Yet, the experience highlighted the transformative power of positive relationships. Throughout our trainings there was an openness to mutually learn from each other. This is a community impacted with overcrowded schools (200 students to 1 teacher with very few resources), extreme poverty, and pervasive illness – and they welcomed opportunities to transfer Open Circle concepts and practices to support their children.

Sallie Dunning and I went to Amor Village with a training design based on the goals identified by Beatrice Achieng Nas, BSC, a visiting scholar at the Wellesley Centers for Women (WCW) in the Fall of 2013. Beatrice set the stage for our learning through her community work that effectively supports education and social change within her village.

Our training focused on practices that both promote and support positive relationships. We also highlighted specific interpersonal and life skills.

I think Sallie and I both learned how universally transferable so many of these skills are and the impact that they can have in supporting an entire community.

 

uganda2Sallie Dunning

Living in this small rural community in Eastern Uganda for two weeks was a life-changing experience for me. Riddled with disease (75% of the population is HIV positive), and poverty, the people had an astounding capacity for joy and generosity. (Two families gave me a precious chicken as a sign of gratitude for just being there.) Though isolated from “civilization” (having no electricity, mail, or running water), and used to their own ways, they were surprisingly open to our ideas about cultivating positive relationships, speaking up for girls’ education, and solving problems. Teachers, who have class sizes between 100-200 students with no pencils, paper, books, or materials, enjoyed trying out new teaching practices that might empower their students. Parents became convinced that they were their children’s most important teacher (a new concept for them), and vowed to try to be better models. All of this was possible because of the innovating grass roots work done by Beatrice Achieng Nas, a leader of that village who did work here at WCW last year.

Open Circle is a leading provider of evidence-based curriculum and professional development for social and emotional learning (SEL) in Kindergarten through Grade 5 in the United States.

Since its inception in 1987, Open Circle has reached over two million children and trained more than 13,000 educators. Open Circle is currently used in over 300 schools in more than 100 urban, suburban and rural communities across the United States. Open Circle is a program of the Wellesley Centers for Women at Wellesley College.

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mayaangelouIn Memory of Maya Angelou

Today we lost a Phenomenal Woman writ large and a national treasure, Dr. Maya Angelou, at the age of 86. Last year on April 4, 2013, we cross-posted a birthday tribute to her extraordinary life here on Women Change Worlds and at the blog page of the National Center for Civil and Human Rights Voices of our Community Blog. In honor of her passing, and in honor of phenomenal women everywhere, we are re-posting this blog again today.

 

Happy Birthday Maya Angelou!

We may remember today many ways, but one of the happiest has to be by wishing an ebullient “Happy Birthday!” to one of America’s living national treasures: Dr. Maya Angelou, who was born on this day, as Marguerite Ann Johnson, in 1928.  In the 85 years since then, she has graced our nation and the world with wisdom, vivacity, courage, and splendor as the very embodiment of the figure she made famous in her poem, “Phenomenal Woman.”  On a day that encourages us to reflect on civil and human rights with the widest possible scope, we can use this occasion to look closely at the many ways that Dr. Angelou has blazed paths, opened doors, and enlarged life and living for the rest of us.

Dr. Angelou is perhaps best known for her groundbreaking autobiography, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, first published in 1969, which tells the story of her tumultuous childhood and its overcoming, and then again for her riveting recitation of the poem “On the Pulse of Morning” at President Bill Clinton’s inauguration in 1993, or as the first poet to be invited to a presidential inauguration since Robert Frost appeared at John F. Kennedy’s inauguration in 1961.  Yet, these anchors of public awareness only punctuate a life of irrepressible self-invention that has enlarged our sense of what human beings are capable of and what human liberation might actually look like.  Challenging early circumstances in Dr. Angelou’s life – family violence, family mobility, economic insecurity, sexual abuse – only served to refine and lay bare her genius and expose us to her gifts – artistic, political, literary, and spiritual. 

This Phenomenal Woman was the first African American woman to author a screenplay: Georgia, Georgia, the first African American woman to direct a major motion picture: Down in the Delta, the first major Black writer to author a fourth (then a fifth and sixth) autobiography (giving W.E.B. DuBois, who famously authored three, a run for his money and his historical legacy), and even the first African American female streetcar conductor in San Francisco.  Yet, this litany of firsts obscures a deeper contribution to women’s empowerment and the global legacy of civil and human rights for people of African descent.

happy-birthday-maya
As an integral creative spirit within the Black Arts Movement of the late 1960s and early 1970s, Dr. Angelou’s works of autobiography then poetry helped lay the foundation for Black women’s literature and literary studies, as well as Black feminist and womanist activism today.  By laying bare her story, she made it possible to talk publicly and politically about many women’s issues that we now address through organized social movements – rape, incest, child sexual abuse, commercial sexual exploitation, domestic violence, and intimate partner violence.  Through the acknowledgement of lesbianism in her writings as well as her public friendship with Black gay writer and activist James Baldwin, she helped shift America’s ability to envision and enact civil rights advances for the LGBTQ community.  And the time she spent in Ghana during the early 1960s (where she met W.E.B. DuBois and made friends with Malcolm X, among others), helped Americans of all colors draw connections between the civil rights and Black Power movements in the U.S. and the decolonial independence and Pan-African movements of Africa and the diaspora. 

By communicating through the arts, Dr. Angelou has always brought a much-needed dimension of heart and soul to our political efforts and aspirations.  Her life-as-career has been recognized for its universal value to others in her appointment as the lifetime Reynolds Professor of American Studies at Wake Forest University, as well as through numerous awards and recognitions. The long arc of her contributions to civil and human rights, which reaches back to her early employment with the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, reached a tragic pitch with the assassination of her friend and colleague Dr. Martin Luther King on her 40th birthday in 1968, and proceeds forward to the recent formation of the Maya Angelou Center for Health Equity at Wake Forest School of Medicine, is now part of the fabric of our history.

At 85, Dr. Maya Angelou is a living legend and cultural treasure. Her courage in the service of freedom and justice has left its unmistakable mark on our world. As she once stated, “Courage is the most important of all the virtues, because without courage you can’t practice any other virtue consistently.”

On this day, as an act of honor and celebration, I encourage everyone to seek out and share a book, poem, film, song, or speech by Dr. Maya Angelou – but not to stop there.  To truly honor her life, we must look around and witness the many “caged birds who still sing” – and then find a way to help open doors to freedom.  We can look to organizations like the National Center for Civil and Human Rights, which has become a convener of change conversations and a facilitator of change actions, or to organizations like the Wellesley Centers for Women, that works to move the needle of change by supporting social change efforts through social scientific research, theory, and action.  But we can also start right where we are, as Dr. Angelou did so many times herself, and ask ourselves, “What can I do, right here, right now?”  There are so many ways to get involved, and, like Dr. Angelou, to live a life that makes a difference.

Layli Maparyan, Ph.D., is executive director of the Wellesley Centers for Women, Wellesley College.

 

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Posted by on in Women Change Worlds

bringbackourgirls#BringBackOurGirls

More than two weeks have gone by since 276 young women were abducted from a high school in Nigeria,* and there has been relatively little attention to their plight from the international community and news media. These are young women who had returned to the school (which had previously been closed due to regional violence) to study for an important physics exam, the results of which could help them gain entry to a university and later into careers such as medicine and education.

Wellesley College, like many other colleges and universities in this country, has recently opened its doors to visits from prospective students--women from a wide range of backgrounds. As we share their anticipation and hopes, we might also take a moment to consider how in “one fell swoop” a group of terrorists, Boko Haram, violently intercepted the hopes of these young women who are of similar age. The other day, walking on our campus, I saw a group of local high school seniors in formal attire having their pictures taken by our beautiful lake, and I was touched by their pre-graduation excitement and, at the time, overwhelmed as I imagined the despair those young Nigerian women, aged 16-18, must be experiencing in the clutches of a depraved enemy.BlogPullQuote5.7

Wellesley is one of the Seven Sisters’ Colleges--colleges with a historic commitment to the education and rights of women. If “Sisterhood” means something, then please lend your voices now; let the world know that this is unacceptable. Two years ago Malala Yousafzai was shot in the head and almost killed as a member of the Taliban opened fire on her school bus. Once again, young women risk annihilation in their effort to become educated. We are in a position to assert our voices on behalf of these “sisters.”

What you can do:

  • Use social media--hash tag #BringBackOurGirls Instagram posts and tweets in an effort to increase awareness.
  • Organize/ Attend Peaceful Community Marches.
  • Petition.
  • Raise public awareness and show support for these women in a peaceful, law-abiding and effective way.

 

Margaret Cezair-Thompson, Ph.D. is a Senior Lecturer in the English Department, Wellesley College.

* The actual number of abducted students has been difficult to confirm.

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middleschoolmonthMiddle School Expanded Learning Opportunities: 20 Years and Growing

A few weeks ago we recognized Middle School Month--dedicated to re-emphasizing the importance of middle school programming and the unique developmental needs of adolescents. The National Institute on Out-of-School Time (NIOST) has worked with many concerned educators and policy makers over the years to ensure that middle school children have quality opportunities.

Eric Schwarz, CEO and founder of Citizen Schools, has been one of the most dynamic partners in his work. Recently, he announced plans to step down from his role as the organization that serves low-income, at-risk middle school students approaches its twentieth anniversary. Back in the mid 1990s, specialized afterschool programs for middle school youth were virtually unknown. But Eric had a vision that paved the way for a not only a new area of programming, but a body of knowledge and research that stressed the importance of giving low-income middle school students the skills and access to learning experiences most middle class students and their families took for granted.

Eric and I met at NIOST in 1994, shortly before he launched Citizen Schools with his partner Ned Rimer. I remember clearly our conversation about the special needs of middle school students, often overlooked by leaders in the field who were mostly focused on elementary-level children. At the time, we looked to the leadership of The Center for Early Adolescence at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, one of the few research organizations that focused on young adolescents. Their guidance on the needs specific to this age group helped to shape the early work of those of us who recognized this gap in the developing field of afterschool. They included*:

  • Physical Activity
    Competence and Achievement
    Self-Definition
    Creative Expression
    Positive Social Interactions with Peers and Adults
    Structure and Clear Limits
    Meaningful Participation

 

In 2014, an industry of programs and services exist that focus on middle school youth during their out-of-school time and expanded learning day. NIOST, now in its thirty-fifth year, has expanded its repertoire of scholarship, research-based tools and training to include middle school- (and high school-) level programs and continues to focus its work on the changing needs and concerns of youth ages, 5-18 years. In part we can thank visionaries like Eric Schwarz for his leadership and advocacy. Eric, best of luck in your future endeavors!

Ellen Gannett, M.Ed. is director of the National Institute on Out-of-School Time at the Wellesley Centers for Women, Wellesley College.

*Planning Programs for Young Adolescents, Center for Early Adolescence, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, 1987

 

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