WCW Blog

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.

13 Reasons Why and the Need for Correct Messages About Teen Depression and Suicide

13 Reasons Why Character Poster Clay Jensen13 Reasons Why and the Need for Correct Messages About Teen Depression and Suicide

By now, parents and professionals have reacted to the new Netflix series, 13 Reasons Why. Mental health advocates and school administrators have highlighted the risks of depicting suicide as a means of revenge, of dramatizing teen suicide, and of showing school counselors as uncaring and ineffective. I would be remiss if I did not add my voice to others' by expressing my dismay that this program exposes teens to such unhealthy messages about such an important topic, and that teen depression is presented as a malady that can only be addressed through suicide.

Rather than repeating the many critiques of this series, my purpose here is to share correct messages about adolescent depression and suicide that we, as professionals and parents, should know and should be sharing with our children. Of course this is a difficult topic to broach with adolescents, but given that so many teens have watched this series already, we must embrace this opportunity to teach our children, and ourselves, about youth depression and suicide. This conversation is particularly important now, in the midst of Mental Health Awareness Month.

In fact, suicide is the third leading cause of death among adolescents, and rates of suicidal thinking and behavior are particularly high among Lesbian, Gay, and Bisexual youth. While youth depression and youth suicide are distinct concerns, approximately half of all teens that die by suicide have a mood disorder, such as depression, at the time. Adolescent depression is quite common, with approximately 11 percent of all teens experiencing depression during adolescence. Although youth depression is prevalent and impairing, we now have available numerous depression prevention and treatment protocols that work. Thus, most teens who struggle with depression go on to lead healthy and productive lives.

How do we know if a teen might be experiencing depression or considering suicide? Among other symptoms, signs of youth depression include low mood or irritability, lack of interest in activities, a change to sleep or eating patterns, reduced concentration, fatigue, low self-esteem, and thoughts of death or suicide. Of course all teens experience such symptoms now and then. We worry about teens that experience a cluster of these symptoms, and when these symptoms persist over a period of at least two weeks.

tracy thirteenreasons quoteLikewise, we worry about teens that exhibit signs of suicide. Sometimes these signs are subtle, such as giving away prized possessions, withdrawing from friends, or exhibiting significant behavioral changes, such as intense fights with family and friends. Teens thinking about suicide may also provide verbal cues, such as, “I wish I were dead” and “It’s not worth it anymore.” Also, many people who contemplate suicide do so because they believe they are a burden to others, and that they will be doing others a favor if they are no longer here. Thus, if you hear a teen say, “My family would be better off without me,” it is important to take action. Remember that 50-70 percent of people who make a suicide attempt communicate their intent prior to acting, mostly through such actions or verbal cues. Thus, if you recognize any of these signs, it is important to ASK. Although many of us find it scary to ask about suicide, or worry that asking about suicide will give someone the idea to attempt suicide, we know from numerous studies that talking about suicide will not lead to suicidal behavior.

How do you ask a teen if s/he might be thinking about suicide? Ask the question directly. It is okay to ask a teen if s/he has ever felt like it would be better if they were dead, or if, when very upset, they have experienced suicidal thoughts. If a teen acknowledges suicidal thoughts, s/he should be provided reassurance that help is available, and should be brought for an evaluation and treatment immediately. It’s important to remember that most people who talk about suicide do not really want to die. In fact, most suicides are not impulsive acts, and most people who contemplate suicide give many cues of their intentions, making suicide a largely preventable form of death in the United States.

The primary danger of 13 Reasons Why is that it reinforces damaging myths about youth depression and suicide. Now that this series has been released, and knowing that our teens may well have watched it, our best course of action is to counter those damaging myths by sharing important truths about teen depression and suicide.

Tracy Gladstone, Ph.D. is an associate director and senior research scientist at the Wellesley Centers for Women at Wellesley College, as well as the director of the Robert S. and Grace W. Stone Primary Prevention Initiatives, which focus on research and evaluation designed to prevent the onset of mental health concerns in children and adolescents.

References:

Avenevoli, S., Swendsen, J., He, J., Burstein, M., & Merikangas, K. R. (2015). Major depression in the national comorbidity survey–adolescent supplement: Prevalence, correlates, and treatment. Journal of The American Academy Of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry, 54(1), 37-44. doi:10.1016/j.jaac.2014.10.010
Berkowitz, Larry (2017). Suicide Assessment and Intervention Training for Mental Health Professionals [PowerPoint slides]. NEAS, 2400 Post Road, Warwick, RI.
Burton, C. M., Marshal, M. P., Chisolm, D. J., Sucato, G. S., & Friedman, M. S. (2013). Sexual minority-related victimization as a mediator of mental health disparities in sexual minority youth: A longitudinal analysis. Journal of youth and adolescence, 42(3), 394-402.
Gould, M.S., Marrocco, F.A., Kleinman, M., Thomas, J.G., Mosstkoff, K., Cote, J., & Davies, M. (2005). Evaluating iatrogenic risk of youth suicide screening programs: A randomized controlled trial. JAMA, 293(13), 1635-43.
Joiner, T. (2009). The interpersonal-psychological theory of suicidal behavior: Current empirical status. Psychological Science Agenda, 23(6).
Kann, L., Kinchen, S., Shanklin, S. L., Flint, K. H., Hawkins, J., Harris, W. A., ... & Whittle, L. (2014). Youth Risk Behavior Surveillance--United States, 2013. Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report (MMWR). Surveillance Summaries. Volume 63, Number SS-4. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Nadworny, E. (2016). Middle School Suicides Reach an All-Time High. www.NPR.org
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 suicide behavior among adolescents: results from the Nation Comorbidity Survey Replication Adolescent Supplement. JAMA Psychiatry, 70(3), 300-10.
QPR Institute. QPR Online Gatekeeper Training for ORGANIZATIONS [Training modules]. Retrieved from https://www.qprinstitute.com/organization-training
Robins, E., Gassner, S., Kayes, J., Wilkinson Jr, R. H., & Murphy, G. E. (1959). The communication of suicidal intent: a study of 134 consecutive cases of successful (completed) suicide. American Journal of Psychiatry, 115(8), 724-733.
The JED Foundation. (2017). 13 Reasons Why: Talking Points [Leaflet]. Retrieved from https://www.jedfoundation.org/13-reasons-why-talking-points/
World Health Orgranization. (2004, September 8). Suicide huge but preventable public health problem, says WHO [Online forum post]. Retrieved from WHO Media centre website: http://www.who.int/mediacentre/news/releases/2004/pr61/en/

 

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Local and Global Perspectives on Human Rights, Drugs, Crime, Women and Children

122115blogLocal and Global Perspectives on Human Rights, Drugs, Crime, Women and Children

Substance abuse among women in Massachusetts is increasing dramatically. It is also a worldwide problem. Locally and globally we need to work for a public health model that is responsive to human rights concerns and effective in protecting families and communities.

The United Nations will be holding a General Assembly Special Session (UNGASS) in New York in April, 2016. In preparation, a Global Civil Society Survey was conducted in spring 2015 to identify key areas of concern. Among the five areas to emerge from this process are drugs and health; drugs and crime; and protecting the human rights of women, children and communities in drug-related penal policies. Penal Reform International (PRI), based in the United Kingdom, is spearheading the collection of suggestions on alternatives to incarceration, and Andrea Huber, PRI’s policy director, forwarded me a request for input to this process.

This focus could not be timelier in terms of my work. For the past two years I have conducted research into women, crime, drugs and children in Massachusetts. I have analyzed caseload data of women seeking substance abuse services through the Massachusetts Department of Public Health, focusing primarily on mothers, and identifying those that are justice-involved. In 2013 alone, there were 33,000 admissions of women to treatment. Of these, almost one half had children under 18 years of age. Almost 30 percent of women’s admissions had some blogpullquoteDrugsWomenform of justice-involvement (mostly probation). However, comparisons between justice-involved and non-justice-involved women revealed few differences on demographic and other characteristics. For example, their ages, maternal status, the number of children they have, their children’s ages, and the percentage living with their children.

Also, I talked with women in residential addiction treatment houses--some of which permitted children to live with their mothers--and asked them about their history of treatment, the pros and cons of having their children with them in recovery, and whether justice-involvement had helped or hindered their recovery efforts. Although some women acknowledged that being arrested and locked up for a brief period of time might indeed have saved their lives, they had not experienced effective treatment while incarcerated; and over time their addictions had worsened. Women on probation face a different type of problem. If they experience a relapse they are caught up in negative, escalating sanctions. They are likely to be incarcerated--not because their original offenses warranted prison sentences--but because they have broken their conditions of probation. On the other hand, women in treatment facilities funded by the Department of Public Health are more likely to be encouraged to think about how and why they lapsed and to learn from those experiences.

These differences of approach between the public health and criminal justice paradigms are crucial because the average number of relapses for people in treatment in Massachusetts is around eleven. Gradually, the realization is growing that the criminal justice response to addictions, especially for women, is unworkable. Another reason to support the public health paradigm rather than justice-involvement is because of the universal lack of trauma-informed, effective treatment in prisons for women.

These findings clearly support the NGOs around the world that recommend treating health and human rights as the corner of international drug policy and call for a public health response through the following statements: “Civil society has clearly expressed the need for a public health response to the problems associated with drug use.” “There is a need for gender-sensitive services for women who use drugs...and to support pregnant women and women... with children.” [We need to] “Add a human rights lens to the drug policy conversation and include a gender lens.”

Erika Kates, Ph.D. is a senior research scientist at the Wellesley Centers for Women at Wellesley College; she leads the Massachusetts Women's Justice Network.

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Healthy Young People Despite a World Filled With Violence

LFortunaBlogHealthy Young People Despite a World Filled With Violence

The following article was posted May 4, 2015 on the Medicine and Faith blog of Lisa Fortuna, M.D., and is re-posted with permission by the author. She is pictured a pledge to be a Partner in Peace during the Mother's Day Walk for Peace in Boston, MA.

Because I am a priest and a psychiatrist I spend a lot of time discerning the meaning of things. The past two weeks have been filled with a lot of news stories about discord, violence and hate. A lot of this very bad news has to do with racism, divisions, greed, and power. I only have to bring up Ferguson, Baltimore or ISIS and you know the kinds of stories I am speaking of. These things bring me to two questions: How do we raise up our young people to be healthy in body, mind and spirit in a world that upholds such violence? How does our world contribute to the development of anxiety, depression, and traumatic stress in our young people?

Today one of my parishioners asked me, “What can we do to help our kids make it in this world?”

It is an important and challenging question that I have had to try to answer either at the coffee hour after church service, in my consultation office when seeing a patient and their parents, or when investigating a new intervention that might help young people with depression or trauma.

blogpullquoteHealthyYoungPeopleAlthough these are all big questions, I have at least learned a few things over the years through my clinical practice, research and ministry about what helps young people stay healthy (or what helps them heal if needed) in mind, body and spirit. Here are my top five learnings of what helps young people:

1. Having someone in their life that is absolutely crazy about them, loves them unconditionally and lets them know it.

2. Having a sense of community and true belonging.

3. Developing compassion for self and others.

4. Connecting to ones heritage and traditions while also embracing new ideas and diversity (Includes bi-culturalism, multiculturalism).

5. Developing a sense of a greater good and commitment to something bigger than oneself (spirituality, justice, connecting across differences).

I have found that these five core areas are very important for emotional health and development.

Here are some links of some examples of youth living into these principles and adults supporting them on the journey:


La Puerta Abierta/ The Open Door—a program for clinical excellence and belonging for immigrant youth

 

What are some of the ways we can engender these types of experiences and opportunities for growth and healing in the lives of our young people?

LFortunaBlog2Lisa Fortuna, M.D. is a psychiatrist triple board certified in general psychiatry, child and adolescent psychiatry, and addiction medicine. A research collaborator with scholars at the Wellesley Centers for Women, she is the medical director for child and adolescent psychiatry services for the Boston Medical Center, faculty at Boston University Medical School, and an Episcopal Priest serving as pastor in a Latino congregation in the Episcopal Diocese of Massachusetts.

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The Power of Women’s Social Science Research in Social Justice Movements

march15blogThe Power of Women’s Social Science Research in Social Justice Movements

When most people think about how social change happens, the role of social science research probably isn’t the first thing that comes to mind. Yet, our histories of social change, social movement, and social justice have been shaped by social science research that provided crucial evidence to move things along. As head of the Wellesley Centers for Women, the nation’s oldest and largest academic women and gender focused research and action institute, now celebrating its 40th year, I’d like to talk about the role of social science research by women in advancing gender equality, social justice, and human wellbeing by highlighting three studies by women that really made a difference.

In the late 1930s, Mamie Phipps Clark, a masters student in psychology at Howard University, began to wonder about the relationship between school context and racial self-concept in children. She devised a method of testing children’s racial self-concept using, first, black and white images of children and, later, black and white dolls. Using this method, she collected data from children in three kinds of schools--segregated schools (all black children, black teachers), semi-segregated schools (mostly black children, white teachers), and integrated schools (black and white children, white teachers)--in Arkansas and New York City. She found that, in general, black children in all three conditions were more likely to rate the white image or doll as “good” and the black image or doll as “bad”; however, these effects were most pronounced in the semi-segregated condition where all the children were black and all the teachers were white.

This research was later published with her husband Kenneth Bancroft Clark, also a psychologist, as a series of five papers between 1939-1947, during and after the time both were pursuing their Ph.D.s in psychology at Columbia University. These papers became a cornerstone of the famous “Social Science Statement”--a survey of research drafted by Kenneth Clark, Isidor Chein, and Stuart W. Cook, which made the case that segregation is bad for children--black and white. This statement was submitted as an amicus brief to the U.S. Supreme Court in 1952 and was ultimately cited in the landmark Brown v. Board of Education decision in 1954--proving that social science research really does make a difference in social change.

blogpullquoteWomeSocialScienceIn the mid-1970s, Stanford-based psychologist Sandra Lipsitz Bem began to wonder how she might measure the limiting effects of traditional sex roles. This question had been raised by the women’s liberation movement, as more and more women became aware of--and concerned about--things like the “glass ceiling” and gender wage gap, as well as parenting differentials at home. Bem devised the Bem Sex Role Inventory (BSRI), a quantitative measure of traditional masculinity and femininity, which she published in 1974. Unlike previous sex role inventories, the BSRI allowed researchers to capture degrees of masculinity and femininity within the same person, rather than just rating an individual as either masculine or feminine. In addition, the BSRI introduced a new sex role category: androgyny. This category referred to people--male or female--who scored high in both masculinity and femininity. (People who scored low in both were referred to as “undifferentiated.”) Research based on the BSRI showed that women who scored high on androgyny showed levels of workplace success that were similar to men scoring high in masculinity, while women who scored high in femininity tended to experience more barriers to workplace success. Ironically, Bem was not tenured at Stanford despite many awards for her research, although Cornell subsequently rewarded her with a full professorship. Like Mamie Clark, Sandra Bem contributed to the outcome of landmark civil rights cases, this time in the area of employment. Bem testified as an expert witness in both the 1973 case against the Pittsburgh Press (ending the division of “help wanted” ads by sex) and the 1974 AT&T sex-discrimination settlement (ending many employment practices that discriminated against women). On a broader cultural level, Bem’s work also influenced how children are socialized about gender through books, toys, and television--in particular, widening the options presented to girls. In the long run, Sandra Bem’s research on sex roles helped establish the idea that gender is socially constructed and not merely inborn, expanding our society’s ideas about what it means to be a man or woman and opening up options along the full “spectrum of gender.”

In the mid-2000s, two political scientists--Mala Htun of the University of New Mexico and Laurel Weldon of Purdue University--embarked on a quest to discover empirically what really makes a difference in ending violence against women at the societal level. Examining data from 70 countries collected over four decades, these researchers determined that a single factor makes the most difference: the existence of an autonomous feminist movement within a country. In their provocative 2012 article titled “The Civic Origins of Progressive Policy Change: Combating Violence against Women in Global Perspective, 1975-2005,” these authors showed that “feminist mobilization in civil society” is more strongly correlated with the creation of policies that combat violence against women than any other factor that they measured, including percentage of women in government, activity of leftist parties, or relative national wealth. To quote these authors, “autonomous [feminist] movements produce an enduring impact on VAW policy through the institutionalization of feminist ideas in international norms.” They further state that, “analysis of civil society in general--and of social movements in particular – is critical to understanding progressive policy change.” What this comprehensive study tells us is that, despite the hurdles and setbacks that large-scale social movements inevitably face, they are, in the end, what makes a difference in bringing us closer to equity, justice, and wellbeing. And, on a more granular level, all of the large and small organizations that exist to advance social change within such movements are absolutely essential to achieving the aims we dream of. Htun and Weldon dared to use “big data” to illuminate a reality that common sense alone could not have revealed.

We must thank these and many other women social scientists for the painstaking work of bringing hard evidence to bear on our diverse social change efforts in the U.S. and globally. Social scientists, especially women social scientists, have played a crucial yet unsung role in bringing us closer to our shared ideals of gender equality, social justice, and human wellbeing. Let us celebrate them this Women’s History Month!

Layli Maparyan, Ph.D. is the Katherine Stone Kaufmann ’67 Executive Director of the Wellesley Centers for Women at Wellesley College.

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"E" Is for Energy

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.

blogpullquoteDopamineEnergySo 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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"R" is for Resonance

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. blogpullquoteResonanceDeep 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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"A" Is for Accepted

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.

blogpullquoteAcceptedThis 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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"C" Is for Calm--Four Ways to Click

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 blogpullquoteFourWaystoClickkillers 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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2014 Round-up

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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Let's Talk about Sex

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.

blogpullquoteTalkaboutSexIt’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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Supportive Human Relationships: Often Overlooked in Our Search for Quick Fixes

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 blogpullquoteSupportiveRelationshipshuman 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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Suicide Prevention: The Depression Link

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.

blogpullquoteDepressionLinkTreating 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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Is Stress Making Us Sick?

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 blogpullquoteStressMakingUsSickwear 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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Facebook: Friend or Foe

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?

blogpullquoteFacebookMedia 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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#BringBackOurGirls

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.blogpullquoteBringBackOurGirls

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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Remembrance, Recognition, and Reconciliation

ReconciliationPhoto1Remembrance, Recognition, and Reconciliation

When Nelson Mandela died, many of us reflected on his efforts at reconciliation. We wondered how anyone who had endured nearly three decades of imprisonment and witnessed the denigration of his people could emerge from his cell and talk about reconciliation with his jailors. For example, when did he first think about taking this action? How long had it taken him to come to his decision? And how did he convince others this would be a worthy path to take? Think of the process involved. First we need to acknowledge our painful memories, then we need to take some form of action in recognizing (validating) those memories, and finally we have to engage those who hold responsibility for inflicting the pain.

These thoughts were with me in an immediate and personal way around the time Mandela died, when I took a trip to London and Berlin. In London, where I grew up, a close friend had become involved in events commemorating the 75th anniversary of the Kindertransport. Between 1938 and 1939, more than 10,000 children, mostly Jewish, were provided with visas to enter Britain. Parents made the decision to put their children on a train to England to prevent their extermination by the Nazis. They entrusted their children to strangers to save their lives, and most were never reunited. In 2003, a statue at Liverpool street station had been dedicated to the Kindertransport, depicting five children carrying small suitcases, a teddy bear, and a violin.

A few days after I arrived in London, over 250 people gathered at the statue for the 75th anniversary. I was there because my friend’s mother is blogpullquoteMandelaReconciliationone of the few surviving ‘Kinder.’ It was a somber occasion, both a tribute to the courage of those who survived and the generosity of the (mostly non-Jewish) families that took these children into their homes and raised them.

The process of remembrance and recognition has been a long journey for many Kinder. Like other survivors of Nazi persecution many did not speak about their experiences for decades; but as they aged some felt compelled to tell their stories to family members and others. Organizations encourage such acts of remembrance, providing support so they can speak out and educate others. In 2013, this recognition was recently taken to another level when Prince Charles met and talked with surviving Kinder, and a ceremony at the Houses of Parliament commemorated the November 1938 debate that resulted in the Kindertransport.

Berlin was a different experience. Both my parents were born in Germany: my mother in Berlin, my father in Leipzig. As Jews they were lucky to escape to London before war broke out. I knew that except for one brother and his wife, my mother’s family did not survive. Eleven members were killed in Auschwitz, Riga, and Sobibor. Because the Nazis kept detailed records of their persecution and slaughter of Jews and others, I had been able during a previous visit to find the address in Berlin from which my grandmother had been taken (along with the date of transport, her destination, and the date of her murder). I was interested in placing a Stolperstein at this address.

A Stolperstein is a brass plaque, about the size of a small brick that is placed in the sidewalk next to the building from which a person was taken to a concentration camp and killed. It bears the simple facts recorded in the Nazi records: the person’s name, date of transport, destination, and date of murder. Stolper means to stumble, and the stones are raised to make them noticeable. They were the idea of performance artist, Gunter Demnig in 1996, and he is still responsible for making them. His intent was that their presence would remind people constantly as they go about their daily business of a past many of them would rather forget; and specifically, to name the people who perished. There are now about 6ooo in Berlin alone, and volunteers keep the stones clean and shiny. A month before my trip I had contacted a woman, Hannelore, who assists with these installations in the Schoeneberg neighborhood where my grandmother Marie Driesen had lived, and informed her I wanted to arrange for a Stolperstein for my grandmother.

ReconciliationPhoto2A week before my trip she informed me a Stolperstein for Marie Driesen was already in place, and that its installation had been arranged by a current owner of an apartment at the Schoeneberg address. Two weeks later my husband and I were warmly greeted by Hannelore and the owner, Baerbel. We looked at the Stolperstein in the sidewalk, and then sat at a table in Baerbel’s apartment and talked. We learned that around 1938, 37-39 Belziger Strasse had been designated as a Jewish building. This meant that all Jewish residents in the building were forced to take in other Jews as lodgers, and Jews from other buildings were forced to move into the apartments; measures that made it easier for them to be rounded up later. Baerbel, a retired geologist, had worked tirelessly to obtain documents on the 22 Jewish residents taken from that building, and she had a huge binder with files on each one. But she went further; she asked the 52 current residents to contribute to the cost of installing Stolperstein for them. Not a single person refused, and the installation had been filmed by local television.

Such installations are taking place all over Germany; and as families travel from abroad to gather round the stones they engage in conversation with strangers--neighbors and passersby--to remember, recognize, and, openly acknowledge this history and their loss. And yes, these steps approach reconciliation.

On the few previous occasions I have visited Germany I have felt very uncomfortable. This time I found a new respect for those who had the dedication and personal courage to take on the responsibilities of a previous generation. In the 1950s, the German government made a move towards reconciliation by paying nominal monetary restitution to victims’ families, and more recently has built museums and memorials. But the Stolperstein have grown out of the next generation’s sense of their nation’s shameful history. Its grassroots efforts profoundly affect local residents, entire neighborhoods, cities, and the nation; and they offer people like me a sense of gratitude and hope. I think that is a good definition of reconciliation.

Erika Kates, Ph.D. is a Senior Research Scientist at the Wellesley Centers for Women at Wellesley College.

 

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A Different Kind of Resolution

2014ResolutionsA Different Kind of Resolution

This time of year, many people are thinking about their New Year’s resolutions. More often than not, these resolutions revolve around things we’d like to change in ourselves or our lives. But what about the things we’d like to change about our world--the things that are bigger than ourselves and our own individual lives? This year, I’m advocating for a different kind of resolution--a resolution to connect ourselves to “the change we’d like to see in the world” through direct action in areas we have the power to influence. I’m convinced that, if enough of us did this, we would turbo-charge not only efforts towards social justice but also human well-being on a vast scale. Are you ready to see where you can plug in??

Those of us who work at social change organizations, like us here at the Wellesley Centers for Women, perhaps have it easiest because our very livelihood depends on doing work that makes a difference in the world. Yet, even those of us who work in this arena need to recommit periodically--to our ideals and principles, to our social change goals, to the targets for change that we have set and to which we hold ourselves accountable. At WCW, we are using a strategic planning process to help us do this, which requires us both organizationally and individually to look at our work--which includes research, theory, and action programs--and its social change impact. Even those of us who have chosen social justice or human wellbeing as our lifework must periodically review, refresh, and reinvigorate.

blogpullquoteDifferentResolutionJust because we don’t all work for social change organizations, however, doesn’t mean there aren’t major ways we can make each a difference. What do you care about? What change would you like to see in the world? As great and necessary as organizations are in the social change equation, they are not the end-all and be-all. Individuals and small groups, even when they are working for change outside formal organizations, can make a monumental difference in outcomes for many through partnering, advocacy, endorsement, and financial support. As Margaret Mead once famously quipped, “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.”

Yet, the “power of one” is something to be reckoned with, too. We can look to history for inspiration. I would tell my students, for example, about an African-American “house slave” named Milla Granson who held a “midnight school” in her cabin each night to teach 12 fellow slaves how to read; once they learned, she took in 12 more--and did so for decades, until scores “forged their passes to freedom.” Can we imagine this kind of educational activism today? Just last week, I learned the story of Chiune Sugihara, the Japanese diplomat in Lithuania who, during the Holocaust, without orders, wrote and distributed transit visas, sometimes working in collaboration with his wife for 18 hours per day, even overnight, to produce them. Today, scholars estimated that he saved about 6,000 Jews and that anywhere from 40,000 to 100,000 people are alive today because of the action he took. Both Milla Granson’s and Chiune Sugihara’s actions show us that there’s always something we can do, right from where we happen to be standing. So what are we waiting for?

All of us have some kind of expertise, passion, or resources that we can contribute to increasing social justice and human well-being in the world. It just takes a different kind of resolution. What will you resolve to do in 2014??

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

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Connections Are at the Core of Social Justice

12.10blogConnections Are at the Core of Social Justice

Empathy and mutual respect provide the underpinnings for societal trust and economic stability. Neuroscience confirms that we are hardwired to be in connection with one another; cultures that create an ethic of hyper-individualism put us at odds with our natural proclivity to relate and connect. As Einstein once said:

“A human being is part of a whole...but he experiences himself, his thoughts and feelings as something separated from the rest. This delusion is a kind of prison for us, restricting us to our personal desires and to affection for a few persons nearest to us. Our task must be to free ourselves from this prison by widening our circle of compassion to embrace all living creatures and the whole of nature in its beauty.”

Many of us live in cultures that pay lip service to “community” but in fact often function in a way that overstates individual competitive accomplishment and uses fear and shame to undermine the power of connection. Jean Baker Miller spoke of the corrosive effects of “condemned isolation,” the feeling of immobilization, isolation, self blame, being overwhelmed and hopeless. It has been said that “Isolation is the glue that holds oppression in place.” (Laing, K. 1998, Katalyst leadership workshop presented at In Pursuit of Parity: Teachers as Liberators, Boston, MA.) If dominant groups can isolate, shame, and silence the nondominant groups, they disempower them and can seize and retain more power for themselves, creating fear and inequality. The antidote to fear and immobilization is connection. Social justice is founded on mutual respect and growth fostering connection.

blogpullquoteConnectionsAreCoreA model for human experience that emphasizes our separateness works against our sense of basic connection and belonging. It leads us to believe that we should function autonomously in situations where that is impossible. By placing unattainable standards of individualism on us, it leaves us vulnerable to feeling even more inadequate, ashamed, and stressed out. There is abundant data that social ties are decreasing in the U.S.; more and more people feel they can trust no one. (Putnam, R. 2000 Bowling Alone: The collapse and revival of American community. New York: Simon and Schuster.) And traditional psychology with its overemphasis on internal, individual problems contributes to our failure, at a societal level, to invest in social justice and social support programs. Rather than addressing the problems in a society that disempower us and perpetuate systems of injustice, we have tended to locate the problems in the individual. Martin Luther King once said, “compassion is more than flinging a coin to a beggar; it comes to see that an edifice which produces beggars needs restructuring.” The powerful then keep invisible the ways in which privilege and power differentials support their success.

Further, the myth of meritocracy does a great disservice to most people who do not enjoy privilege at birth. Purely personal effort and personal control are overstated as the reason for individual success. In western culture there is pathological preoccupation with “the self,” “self interest,” individual competition as the source of all success. Our privileged narratives celebrate lone heroes, winning, being dominant, being certain and in control. The need to be in connection, to be part of something larger--a community, nature, and a movement--is often seen as a sign of weakness.

We now know that inequality reduces empathy in a society and reduced empathy in turn contributes to inequality. Physical and emotional distance between the rich and the poor erodes empathy and mutuality. Trust, empathy, and social structures play critical roles in determining not just individual health and happiness but also how well regions and nations perform economically and socially. When empathy is sparse in a culture, the culture itself becomes less stable, less productive, less healthy, and less just. Typically under these conditions there are increases in wealth disparity, violence, and lack of respect for human lives.

A just society is founded on empathy, respect, mutual empowerment. Kindness and connection put the brakes on the chemistries of fear and threat. Practicing empathy and generosity is good for the collective and good for individuals. Our brains thrive when we practice empathy. In a culture of disconnection, discovering that we are hardwired to connect can serve as a source of hope. We currently live with the dilemma of neurobiologies that are wired to thrive in connection and a culture that tells us we must stand alone, that we are autonomous, self-sufficient, and thrive in competitive settings. This is a set up for social and personal failure.

Mutuality is based on respect, a growing capacity to speak our truths, and allowing others to have an impact on us. As Patricia Hill Collins noted, “a commitment to truth requires a politics of empathy; a commitment to truth requires a commitment to social justice.”(Collins, P.H. 1990 Black feminist thought: Knowledge, consciousness and the politics of empowerment. Boston: Unwin Hyman). We need to bear witness to one another’s truths; we need to build communities where differences do not sustain stratifications but contribute to building bridges of respect and growth.

Neuroscience is now delivering data that shows us--without a doubt--that we are profoundly interdependent creatures. We have a responsibility for one another’s well-being and we need to foster social programs built on the real facts of our concern for one another and thus fulfill our intrinsic capacity for empathy and caring.

Judith V Jordan, Ph.D. is Director of the Jean Baker Miller Training Institute at the Wellesley Centers for Women, Wellesley College. A founding scholar and one of the creators of Relational-Cultural Theory, she has published extensively and is an assistant professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School.

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Suicide Prevention: The Depression Link

depressedteenSuicide Prevention: The Depression Link

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.

blogpullquoteDepressionLinkTreating 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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Is Grit Another Name for Resiliency?

cooktutorIs Grit Another Name for Resiliency?

Over the past few months, in my role as the Chair of the American Camp Association’s (ACA) Task Force on Non-Cognitive Skills, I have been immersed in the research and popular literature on what journalist-author Paul Tough calls “non-cognitive skills.” Numerous discussions, papers, books, and organizations have surfaced that are creating a great deal of confusion about what we are actually talking about. From Angela Lee Duckworth of the University of Pennsylvania, who uses the term “grit,” to Ellen Galinsky’s Mind in the Making, to the Partnership for 21st Century skills, to CASEL's work on Social and Emotional Learning, I have become overwhelmed with the attention this issue is currently receiving. But what exactly are we all talking about? Is nomenclature getting in the way of a shared understanding of the “it”? Several labels or terms have been used (grit, life skills, applied skills, executive function, emotional intelligence, non cognitive skills, soft skills, character skills, leadership skills, and on, and on) but are they all same?

And more importantly are we missing something? Are we overlooking the importance of relationships and caring adults? Willis Bright, past director of the Youth Program at Lilly Endowment and a member of the ACA Task Force, speaks about “navigational and interpretative skills” thus adults helping youth to develop a moral compass in an increasingly complex society. That got me thinking about the work of Bonnie Benard and her colleagues at Stanford University on Resiliency Research.

blogpullquoteGritAccording to Benard, “we are all born with innate resiliency, with the capacity to develop the traits commonly found in resilient survivors: social competence (responsiveness, cultural flexibility, empathy, caring, communication skills, and a sense of humor); problem-solving (planning, help-seeking, critical and creative thinking); autonomy (sense of identity, self-efficacy, self-awareness, task-mastery, and adaptive distancing from negative messages and conditions); and a sense of purpose and belief in a bright future (goal direction, educational aspirations, optimism, faith, and spiritual connectedness)” (Benard, 1991).

But when faced with adversity, these inborn traits may not develop. Benard (1991) Werner (1993) and others have discovered there are “protective factors,” that can help young people develop resilience despite high levels of risk: caring relationships, high expectations and meaningful participation and contribution.

Our work at the National Institute on Out-of-School Time supports the resiliency research. The Afterschool Program Assessment System and its linked outcome tools, SAYO (Survey of Afterschool Youth Outcomes), are based on this framework. Our theory is that afterschool program can be the place where young people can learn social and emotional skills in an environment where caring adults, set high expectations and provide meaningful leadership opportunities for young people.

Despite their similarities, grit emphasizes one's internal resources while de-emphasizing the important external factors that help contributes one's success--something that resiliency theory includes. The APAS system, which is based on this resiliency framework, highlights the importance of supportive adult relationships in the healthy development of youth--something we should keep in mind as we begin a new year of academic and out-of-school-time programming.

Ellen Gannett, M.Ed. is the Director of the National Institute on Out-of-School Time at the Wellesley Centers for Women, Wellesley College where she ensures that research bridges the fields of child care, education, and youth development in order to promote programming that addresses the development of the whole child.

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Unaccompanied Homeless Youth in Massachusetts, what does this mean?

kathyschleyer postpic Unaccompanied Homeless Youth in Massachusetts, what does this mean?


This blog post, by Kathy Schleyer, was entered in the Wheelock College Policy Connection 2013 Student Blogger Contest and earned second place. The original post can be found on the Wheelock College Blog.

It happens to be a snowy day in March and I sit in the comfort of my warm (relatively) house in the suburbs of Boston. I am a middle-aged graduate student at Wheelock College studying contemporary issues of children and families. One of our assignments is to research and report on a personal topic of interest. Professionally, I am the Director of Training at the National Institute on Out-of-School Time (NIOST) at the Wellesley Centers for Women. I could write extensively on the importance of afterschool for children and youth, but today I must write on another topic.

blogpullquoteUnaccompaniedHomelessYouthA few years ago my daughter, while in college in Connecticut, invited me to a community gathering she helped organize on human trafficking. The purpose of the meeting was to raise awareness of the topic and to encourage attendees to take action to help support young women who are lured or forced into a captive life of servitude or sexual exploitation. The impetus nationwide is to provide supports for the women to decriminalize their actions and to find, prosecute, and penalize the "johns" and pimps. At the time Massachusetts was one of three states without human trafficking legislation.

Today, Massachusetts has legislation in place against human trafficking but it is time to enact new legislation to protect a particularly vulnerable group of young adults who can fall prey to those who would enslave them into a life of sexual exploitation. These youth are called "unaccompanied homeless youth" and are defined as 1) under the age of 25 and 2) not in the physical custody or care of a parent or legal guardian and 3) lacking fixed, regular, and adequate housing. My intent is to draw attention to the importance of passing legislation to support unaccompanied homeless youth to them help avoid mental trauma, dropping out of school, living on the street, or becoming victims of human tracking. The multiple risks faced by homeless youth trying to survive on their own demand solutions that encompass stable housing, access to mental health services, job and skill development, etc. Therefore, legislation or state funding through line item budgeting is needed to enable these wraparound services.

First we must find these young people. An anecdotal phrase that describes one survival mode is "couch surfing." This term refers to youth that move from house to house seeking temporary refuge with help from relatives, friends or strangers. Others live on the street trying to survive by work (hard to get) or petty crime, selling drugs, trading sex for food or money or get caught up in the ravages of prostitution and illegal activities. The Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (MA DESE) estimates that there are approximately 6,000 high school students unaccompanied and homeless. This figure does not include those who have already dropped out of school or older youth aged out of the school system.

A classmate of mine "adopted" a homeless high school senior when her son brought him home one day saying that he had nowhere to live. He stayed for the remainder of the school year and enlisted in the U.S. Army upon graduation. This boy is fortunate- care came to him, but it is estimated by the Commission on Unaccompanied Homeless Youth that 50 high school students were homeless in the same town as this boy that year. It is unlikely many of those adolescents were as lucky.

I am grateful for my warm house and my family. I am so far removed from the experience of homelessness that it is hard for me to picture the day-to-day suffering of those affected. I donate money and I volunteer at a downtown shelter, but that is easy and I always go home to my own bed. Some reports describe the effects of street life as mirroring post-traumatic stress syndrome. We can look to nonprofits and churches to assist but it is time to act legislatively. We have the means to offer help and support through our public institutions and through our policing response. The human trafficking legislation passed in Massachusetts to protect vulnerable children, such as homeless youth, from sexual exploitation is proof of that fact. Giving first responders the ability to safeguard youth rather than arrest them, similar to the human trafficking legislation, is essential. Massachusetts has taken steps in this direction but it must go further with legislation and/or budgeting specifically directed towards unaccompanied homeless youth. I urge you to support the work of the Massachusetts Unaccompanied Homeless Youth Commission in addressing this issue. Visit the Massachusetts Coalition for the Homeless for more information and steps you can take.

Reference: Homelessness in Massachusetts Public Schools. From http://www.mahomeless.org/images/2011_data_8-12.pdf

Kathy Schleyer is an Educational Studies graduate student at Wheelock College (degree expected December 2013), and the Director of Training at the National Institute on Out-of-School Time (NIOST). She works to support the professional development of afterschool staff. Her primary focus is on the use of assessment tools to improve program quality and to help youth reach positive outcomes.

 

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Interdependency and Mental Health

Comforting Interdependency and Mental Health

May is National Mental Health Awareness month, a fitting time to be mindful of the suffering caused by mental illness. Even though I am a psychiatrist, working daily with people diagnosed with mental illness, I am stunned by the statistics on the incidence of mental illness. According to the National Institute of Mental Health in any 12 month period, 26.2 percent of adults are diagnosed with a mental illness. That is one in four adults who are experiencing disturbing and often debilitating symptoms--the constant distress of an anxiety disorder, the aching despair of a major depression, the terror of psychosis. The lifetime incidence of mental illness is over 50 percent. These statistics tell us that if you have not been diagnosed with some form of mental illness, someone you know and love has. When you go to work today or even out with friends in the evening, see if you can identify the one in four people who has a mental illness. Don’t be surprised to walk away thinking there are none in your group. Also don’t be surprised to find out that you are wrong.

blogpullquoteInterdependencySo, where are all the people with mental illness? From what I hear in my office, many are hiding and suffering in silence for fear of being stigmatized, pitied, or seen as weak. American, Westernized culture plays a large role in this fear. The pervasive image of an American is a person who is strong, independent, and can “make it” on his or her own. There is no direct media campaign telling people who have a mental illness to stay in the closet, but the chronic cultural myth of the “self made man” acts as a reference point from which we all measure our worth. The more dependent you are on others, the less value you hold. This cultural bias is insidious and contributes to an environment that makes each of us hide our vulnerabilities behind a wall of shame at not being strong enough to manage our day to day lives on our own.

The idea that we are stronger on our own is destructive, dangerous, and undermines our natural physiology that works best in healthy interdependency. Professor Emeritus at the University of British Columbia, Jilek Wolfgang, M.D., M.Sc. reports that people who develop a psychotic illness actually heal faster in a non-Westernized world. A stunning finding given that Western societies are known to have the most educated doctors and best hospitals in the world. So what accounts for the improvement? A lack of stigma. In the West, psychosis or the loss of reality testing is seen as the ultimate failure of individual strength. It is frightening and dangerous. On the other hand, in many parts of Africa, extended family and community reach out and embrace the individual with psychosis rather than fearing or shunning him.

Relational neuroscience offers some explanation for this finding. Researchers at UCLA, Eisenberger and Leiberman, have discovered that the pain of social exclusion is registered in the exact area of the brain, the dorsal anterior cingulate gyrus, as the pain from a physical illness or injury. Because humans are meant to function best in healthy human connection, this area of the brain fires an alarm for things that are life threatening. The chronic pain of an acute physical injury or illness can be lethal, but Social Pain Overlap Theory (SPOT Theory) tells us that being socially rejected is every bit as dangerous. When we stigmatize and ostracize people with mental illness we increase their stress levels, decrease their ability to fight illness, and prolong their healing process.  

The range of functioning in the people I treat everyday is tremendous--from CEOs capable of running a company while having a mental illness to individuals on disability unable to work because of severe symptoms. Almost every person I see is hiding their diagnosis from at least one important person in their lives out of fear of the anticipated rejection. In this month of May let’s all open our eyes and our hearts to see and embrace someone with a mental illness and to support those who are suffering knowing full well that statistics show having a mental illness is not an individual failure nor a weakness. Mental illness is, well, an illness and the best hope for a speedy recovery is the support of extended families and friends. This cultural shift from pathological independence to healthy interdependence holds the power to heal many wounds and to improve the lives of all of us who will experience the pain of mental illness.

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. Over the last ten years at the JBMTI, she has been integrating emerging neuroscience information with relational-cultural theory.

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The Best of What We Bring through Sports

BStrongThe Best of What We Bring through Sports

Sometimes sports brings out the worst in us. Players taunt. Parents criticize. Coaches belittle. And at other times it is within the context of sports that a spotlight is shined on the best of the human spirit. There are many things that I love about sports participation and spectating. I am easily entranced by the last second shot, sudden death, or match point. There is an inexplicable infatuation with the striving for the perfect pass, play--the hat trick.

It is a passionate pact between player and spectator. As much as anything else that passion effusing from spectators is what was under attack on April 15th on Boston's Boylston Street. The very nature of the Boston Marathon–-so heavily focused on the rise of perseverance; the goodness of encouragement from family, friend, and stranger; and the sheer will to keep at something--made the violence even that much more sickening.

blogpullquoteBringthroughSportsIt was no surprise that our sports teams looked for a way to publicly display their solidarity with the people of Boston and the marathon victims – 617 Boston Strong hung on a t-shirt in the Red Sox dugout (617 is Boston's area code.) We wanted something from them. We expect our teams to be a reflection of ourselves. Cheering for our teams becomes cheering for ourselves. The patriotic and spiritual rituals that have become matter-of-fact elements of the generic sporting event (e.g. national anthem, heaven looking) suddenly become more meaningful gestures to express our humbleness, our unity. Never have I heard a stadium crowd sing the national anthem with such magnitude as the opening Bruins game following the bombing.

Each year I am a spectator in Hopkinton--the starting line of the Boston Marathon. I am in the crowd that sends off the 27,000 runners from the start line with waves and cheers. I am repulsed by what I sent them to. I am heartened, though, that the other human beings 26.2 miles ahead were there to hold them, to comfort and care for passionate spectating victims, to dismiss fear, and to let the best of what we bring through sports shine through.

Georgia Hall, Ph.D., is a senior research scientist at the National Institute for Out-of-School Time at the Wellesley Centers for WomenWellesley College, is a sports enthusiast who specializes in research and evaluation on youth development programs.

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It's a SNAP: Living on Four Bucks a Day

SNAPfoodChallengeIt's a SNAP: Living on Four Bucks a Day

This blog appeared originally on YWCatalyst blog. Author Peter Biro is the husband of Nova Biro, a participant in LeadBoston, YW Boston’s experiential executive leadership program which explores key equity issues facing Boston. As part of its examination of poverty, LeadBoston 2013 participants undertook the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) Challenge (feeding yourself on four dollars a day for one week). To support Nova, the entire Biro family participated in the Challenge to better understand food insecurity. Here, Peter reflects on the experience:

I rarely decline a cappuccino any time of day, and certainly never first thing in the morning, but last Thursday I had no choice. To support my wife Nova, our family went on a diet. We were trying to shave not calories, but dollars: her mission was to complete the “SNAP Challenge” as part of her LeadBoston program, and experience issues of poverty firsthand by limiting our daily food spend to what poor families can afford. That number, per person, is only four dollars a day.  

So, the Thursday morning cappuccino that rang in at $4.25 was not in the budget.

If you are lucky enough never to have thought about the breakdown on four bucks a day, as many reading this have not, you eventually arrive at a few other non-obvious conclusions. First, you have to allocate the $4 among your meals--say, 50 cents for breakfast, 1 dollar for lunch, 2 dollars for dinner, and 50 cents for “other” 50 cents for other is just not a lot. In that world, if someone offers you free food, whatever the kind, you probably take it. Second, as characters in Frank McCourt’s Angela’s Ashes, about growing up poor in Ireland could tell you, alcohol is a budget-killer. Say your addiction is on the opposite end of the spectrum like mine and you need a cup of coffee. Cheap will do. That’s about $0.25 if you make it yourself.  

The issue in both cases is that the $0.25 has to come from somewhere. So taking your children out for a ice cream or a treat is a non-starter.  
blogpullquoteFourBucksaDay What are some cheap nutritious foods? In no particular order, the Biro family’s diet last week consisted of rice, beans, potatoes, inexpensive meat (specifically split chicken breasts on sale, and stew meat on sale), bananas, eggs, carrots (but you have to peel them yourself--having the factory do the work for you and turn them into baby carrots costs too much), pasta, homemade pancakes, nuts, oatmeal and super cheap granola bars we bought in bulk (more on this later). We bought a small crate of “Clementine” oranges on sale for $6, or $0.20 apiece. We made homemade pizza one night, with dough from scratch costing roughly $0.40, the sauce about $1 and mozzarella at $3, totaling not quite $5 for 2 pizzas, with leftovers for lunch. We did buy fresh broccoli, which is expensive at $0.30 per serving, so we didn’t have much.  Frozen vegetables are usually cheaper, but not always. Lentils are cheap and high-quality calories but we didn’t get those in.  

Greasy tortilla chips are cheap--low quality, to be sure, but cheap. It is true, as has been noted many times by those studying childhood obesity, that two liters of soda (for about $1 on sale) are much cheaper than a half gallon of orange juice (about $3.50 on sale) or milk.  

Besides designer coffee served by a disgruntled barista, other luxuries were out.  Berries. Flank and high-quality steak. Lamb. Brand names. Good apples out of season cost $1.33 each. So, you can eat a granny smith in March, but you have to give something up.  

My daughter Sophie and I typically spend Tuesday afternoons together and share a piece of cake ($4) and bring one home for my wife and other daughter ($4). We knew this had to go. So, last week, Sophie and I split a mini-cupcake for $1.  

We worked over the crumbs for a while. This was a theme all week.

This experience with my daughter really got my attention. My wife and I know how to improvise in the kitchen, and the convenience of leftovers makes them a way of life for us already, so fitting different ingredients into this model didn’t jar us. For Sophie and me to go without our usual dessert was not that big of a deal either, because in truth, we knew we could resume it next week. It was temporary. But poverty is rarely temporary. And on the best day, you can either have a cup of coffee yourself, or give your child a treat, but never both.  

My family adapted. Sophie resiliently offered, “That’s OK dad, I don’t need the big piece anyway.” I checked the daily sales at our local supermarket and, for example, bought a “Five Buck Cluck," a pre-roasted chicken on sale on Thursdays for $5. That’s meat for four of us, plus a little extra, plus the basis to make stock instead of buying broth at $0.80 per can. We used things that we had bought before in bulk--on a per-serving basis, much cheaper. A granola bar from a small box cost $0.40, but from a Costco-sized box, it’s about $0.10.  

But families in poverty, I imagine, cannot adapt this way. They might not have time to check in at  the market every single day. Yes, shopping at Costco saves money in the long run. But if you are poor, it’s not in your neighborhood. How do you get there? How do you have the money upfront to pay for everything? How do you get it back home? Where would you store it? And  you can’t spend, in the form of foregone wages, nearly $22 to make the 3-hour round trip; $22 is food for six days. At the same time, you probably have to shop for food much more frequently, which is a tremendous time burden for people already stretched to the limit.

This made us think about the broader issues.  

Tight food budgets bring the pervasiveness of cheap processed foods into sharp view. I don’t know what happens to the economy if the minimum wage goes up $1. I do know, that an extra $1 equals $40 per week and would increase the food budget of a family of four by almost 35 percent. A huge impact.    

Most importantly, I remember the anxious feeling after exhausting the daily $4. Not hunger pangs--we had full pantries in a warm spacious house in a safe neighborhood. The anxiety was rooted in this: for someone on $4 per day for food, food insecurity is rarely the greatest of their challenges.

Peter Biro is husband of Nova Biro, co-director of Open Circle, a social-emotional learning program for grades K-5, based out of the Wellesley Centers for Women, Wellesley College. Biro and her family's food challenge were featured on Yahoo News.

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Lean In to Social Change

lean-inLean In to Social Change

One of the things I like best about Sheryl Sandberg’s new book, Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead, is something she says on page 9. Addressing the debate about whether the key to increasing women’s access to power lies in removing “internal barriers” or “institutional barriers,” she writes, “Both sides are right. So rather than engage in philosophical arguments over which comes first, let’s agree to wage battles on both fronts. They are equally important.” I couldn’t agree more.

As the Executive Director of the Wellesley Centers for Women, a social-change oriented women-and-gender research and action institute that works on both sides of the coin--systemic factors and individual factors--when it comes to issues of gender equality and women’s and girls’ wellbeing, I know--and WCW has known collectively for nearly 40 years--that these issues exist both because of what society has set up as unfair parameters and because of how individual people think. And these thoughts include women’s thoughts about themselves, what Sandberg refers to as “internal barriers.”

We all know women who do lean in and succeed, and we know many others who have been leaning in but haven't been able to secure a space at the table. We know that it's not just a matter of will and desire, but the opportunities as well as our perseverance. This is why leaning in for social change-–indeed, for full social equality--is so important.

Sandberg shows real insight when she points out that “personal choices are not always as personal as they appear” and notes that “we are all influenced by social conventions, peer pressure, and familial expectations.” She is rightly acknowledging, as much research has shown before her, that our thinking is often constrained by the social context as well as “demand characteristics” in the environment that overdetermine our tendencies to think (or feel) one way or another. And much of this is unconscious.

The role of research is to bring our unconscious tendencies to light, so that all of us can contribute to the individual and societal self-corrections that add up to social change. I applaud Sheryl Sandberg for incorporating so much research into her book (a full 33 pages of footnotes, to be exact), particularly highlighting the blogpullquoteLeanInSocialChangelife-changing impact of our own Peggy McIntosh’s theoretical insights on her own understanding of how women feel like a fraud, mentioning the Wellesley Centers for Women and Wellesley College by name, mentioning the NICHD Study of Early Child Care on which two of our senior researchers worked, and working closely with sociologist Marianne Cooper at our sister organization, the Clayman Institute for Gender Research at Stanford, to provide much of the statistical data that supports her arguments.

A cornerstone of Sandberg’s social change recommendations center around increasing women’s access to power and women’s leadership in arenas of power. In perhaps what is the book’s most famous recommendation (and the source of its title), she states, “I believe that if more women lean in, we can change the power structure of our world and expand opportunities for all.” Her concern with women’s leadership is the book’s animating anxiety, as evidenced in her statement, “We have to ask ourselves if we have become so focused on supporting personal choices that we are failing to encourage women to aspire to leadership.” I actually like Sandberg’s recommendation for women to “lean in to leadership” as a way of advancing gender equality and eradicating sexism, but I would like to expand her notion of what this means by pushing her (and all of us) to consider leaning in on multiple fronts simultaneously.

What I mean is this: In addition to leaning in to end sexism, we need to lean in to end racism that holds women of color back, lean in to end heterosexism that holds LGBT women back, lean in to end xenophobia that holds immigrant women and women of different nationalities and religions back, lean in to ending able-ism that holds women with disabilities back, lean in to ending ageism that holds “women of a certain age” back, and lean in to ending classism which holds women of low socio-economic status as well as women strapped by global poverty back. And we also need to lean in for all of the men and transgender people who are disadvantaged by these same systems. Leaning in is intersectional! And there’s room for everyone to lean in somewhere.

There’s also one more comment I’d like to make about the notion of leadership. Sandberg echoes and applauds the comments of recent Nobel laureate Leymah Gbowee, who stated decisively that what we need to make a difference on all these issues is “more women in power.” We tend to think of power as being at the pinnacle of a hierarchy, whether that hierarchy is governmental, corporate, professional, or even among celebrities. But, as feminist theorist Audre Lorde has pointed out, there are two kinds of power--“power over” and “power with.”

“Power over” reproduces the very hierarchies and their inevitable violence that we are trying to escape, whereas “power with” is invitational and transformative, linking agents of change together in service of a common idea or aspiration. In fact, it resonates with the definition of success that Sheryl Sandberg attributes to Harvard Business School Dean Nitin Nohria, namely, “Leadership is about making others better as a result of your presence and making sure that impact lasts in your absence.”

While I will not deny that, within our current world system, having more women in “traditional” positions of power is a good thing, we need to give more credence and visibility to women--and men and transpeople--who are leaders in the “power with” vein. In fact, we need to educate our children, one and all, about how to lead using “power with.” A recent study by political scientists Mala Htun and S. Laurel Weldon drives this point home even further: In a study of 70 countries over a 30-year span, these authors found that advancement in policies to end violence against women were explained by the presence of active, autonomous feminist movements and organizations ("power with") and not the presence of female leaders ("power over") per se. And they further found "that autonomous movements produce an enduring impact on VAW policy through the institutionalization of feminist ideas in international norms."

I am thankful for all the attention that Sandberg gave to the importance of men sharing household and family duties with women as well as being accountable for the pro-women policies they create in the workplace as well as in law and policy. She rightly points out that, “Any coalition of support must also include men, many of whom care about gender inequality as much as women do.” It is worth noting that many of these men are the sons and grandsons of the proverbial “feminists from the 60s and 70s,” highlighting a generational change in attitudes, an often overlooked achievement of the second-wave feminist movement, or “women’s lib.” This article by Kunal Modi, “Man Up on Family and Workplace Issues,” which she cites, is a worthwhile read. Sandberg also applauds lesbian and gay couples for the level of equity they demonstrate with regard to sharing household duties, suggesting that heterosexual couples and families could learn a thing or two from their LGBT counterparts.

There’s no doubt that Sheryl Sandberg’s new bestseller Lean In has generated considerable buzz and controversy. The issues she addresses are front and center in many people’s lives. Although her perspective is heavily race-d and class-ed, she acknowledges this with fairness. Having now read the book cover to cover, I find myself wishing that fewer people would spend so much time searching for the flaws in her perspective and more people would take up her challenge to “work together toward equality.” From my perspective, Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In is a real clarion call for those of us who are working on issues that will improve women’s lives--professional and otherwise--to join forces, be more systematic and strategic about our change work, and to align efforts. Equipped with a both/and perspective that acknowledges both societal and individual impediments to gender equality and women’s empowerment, I would love to see more of us just lean in to social change.

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

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The Birds, the Bees, and the Stomach Butterflies

teenboydadThe Birds, the Bees, and the Stomach Butterflies

March is Talk with Your Teen about Sex Month. Why talk about sex with our kids?

In her recent talk at Wellesley College, Cecile Richards, President of Planned Parenthood Federation of America, reminded us that parents are the most important source of sex education for their children. National studies agree. When parents talk about sex with their kids, it can help them postpone having sex and make it more likely teens will use protection when they do have sex. Our research at Wellesley Centers for Women found that this is particularly important in delaying sex for boys.

Here are some take-home messages from our own and others’ research on how parents and teens talk about sex and relationships. The quotes are from our interviews with parents of middle school students.

“I’m willing to go there with her (talk about sex), because I know that I had trouble speaking with my mom about it when I was younger. So I know I need to be there and play that role. And if I don’t talk to her about it, she’ll find out on her own, and that’s not the way that I want that to happen.”

Why is it so hard for us to talk to our kids about sex?

“It’s hard for me to say, ‘Well this is how your penis works.’ You know? Okay, I’ll try to figure it out and I don’t want to sound stupid in front of the kid.”

- Parents often feel embarrassed and may not know how to start conversations about sex
- Parents don’t know where to get accurate information to share with their kids
- Kids are embarrassed too, but it’s important for them to hear from you
- Once you start (even with a small conversation), it will get easier

How do we do it? Tips on talking with teens about sex

“You’re basically informing them and, you know, letting them know that you’re there. And then you kind of just have to take it as it comes, because you never know what’s going to happen.”

- Figure out what’s important to you and share it with your kids
- Listen to what your kids have to say (or what they may have trouble saying)
- Keep the door open – sometimes the first conversation is just an icebreaker
- Give your kids medically accurate information about sex
- Talk with your kids before they have sex

Who can help?

“He still talks about things that he learned in (sex education) class. He still makes a reference to it when we’re talking about things. One of the funny things that doesn’t happen anymore is any reference to sex, we don’t shy away from it if it does come up. He’s just more accepting that it’s a part of life at this point.”

- Just because you didn’t talk about sex growing up with your own family, doesn’t mean you can’t talk with your own kids about sex
- Even when you’re embarrassed, you can still have good conversations with your teens about sex
- You are not alone

  • o Think about friends and family you trust who can be part of the conversation (e.g., aunts, uncles, older siblings, godparents)

o Find out if your teen has a sex education class at school and ask your teen about it
o Here are some resources for information and support to talk to your teens about sex:

10 tips for parents (The National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy)

Communicating with Youth: Themes for Parents to Remember (Planned Parenthood League of Massachusetts)

Help your teen make healthy choices about sex (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention)

Jennifer Grossman, Ph.D. is a research scientist at the Wellesley Centers for Women. She co-directs an evaluation of a middle school sex education curriculum and leads a project investigating what works and what gets in the way of family communication about sexuality among diverse families.

 

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Caregiving across the Life Span

elderlymotherdaughterCaregiving across the Life Span

November is National Family Caregivers Month, a time to recognize those who care for family, friends, and neighbors, including the elderly, sick and disabled. While the elderly are healthier now than in previous generations, about 17 percent of Americans 65 and older need assistance with one or more daily activities, such as bathing or dressing (Himes, 2002); many more need assistance with chores, errands or transportation. Family members in the community provide most of this assistance; for example, 26 percent of adult daughters and 15 percent of adult sons report spending at least 100 hours/year caring for or helping their older parents (Johnson & Lo Sasso, 2000).

While important, these numbers obscure the many ways in which we are each embedded in networks of care. Some of us are directly involved in hands-on caregiving, but care also encompasses “caring about” – paying attention in such a blogpullquoteCaregivingAcrossLifeSpanway that one sees and recognizes the need for care – and “caring for” – responding to other’s needs by taking responsibility for initiating caring activities (Fisher & Tronto, 1990).

I think of my 88-year-old mother, living independently, even though she is vision-impaired and cannot drive. Her children, who do not live nearby, call her regularly, provide financial support and make sure her bills are paid, and take responsibility for ensuring that she receives the care she needs. When they do visit, she has a list of chores ready for them. Her friends provide rides to church and occasional lunches out. Her neighbor calls her daily, takes her food shopping and to doctors’ appointments. Another neighbor brings her books on tape, and helps her figure out the technology to listen to the audiobooks. But my mother is not just a receiver of care. She calls friends who need to talk, makes sure that someone is checking on others living alone, provides advice and labor for activities at church, as well as advice to her children, neighbors and friends. In her younger days, she was the one providing transportation to others, visiting people in the hospital or at home, or providing housing and financial support for her adult children.

These networks of care are often invisible, but they are essential to our communities. As our population ages, and those who provide care are increasingly employed outside of the home, caregiving demands are potentially in direct conflict with employment responsibilities. This reality demands recognition of caregivers not just this month, but year-round, by employers who can provide workplace flexibility – to accompany someone to doctors’ visits, provide transportation, or help with food shopping – and paid family and medical leave for intensive caregiving when needed.

Nancy Marshall, Ed.D., is an Associate Director and Senior Research Scientist at the Wellesley Centers for Women at Wellesley College. She leads the Work, Families & Children team at the Centers. For more than 20 years, researchers on the Work, Families and Children team have studied the lives of children and adults, and the workplaces, early care and education programs and families in which they live, work and grow. The Team applies an ecological systems model to the study of the lives of children and adults. From this perspective, individual lives are best understood in the context of social institutions, such as families, the workplace, and early care and education settings.

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