Cruel to be Kind?

Black and Latino Students Suffer When Teachers Give Too Much Praise

A new study indicates that public school teachers may be failing to challenge minority students, giving them more positive feedback and less criticism than they give to white students, for work of equal merit. The study, led by Rutgers University psychology professor Kent D. Harber and published in the April 30 issue of the Journal of Educational Psychology, involved 113 white middle school and high school teachers in two public school districts located in the New York/New Jersey/Connecticut tri-state area, one middle class and white, and the other working class and racially mixed.

Teachers read and responded to a poorly written essay, which they believed was composed by a student in a writing class. Some teachers thought the student was black, some thought the student was Latino, and some thought that the student was white. Teachers believed that their feedback would be sent directly to the student, so that the student could benefit from their comments and advice. In fact, Harber and his colleagues had written the essay and were using it to see if the race of the student affected the way that teachers responded to subpar work. As predicted, the teachers displayed a “positive feedback bias,” giving more praise when they thought the essay was written by a minority student and more criticism when they thought the student was white.

Positive feedback bias may be one explanation for the academic performance gap between minority students and white students, according to Harber. Through the years, studies have examined other factors that contribute to this performance gap, including inequalities in school funding, racism, and a distrust of academia in some minority communities.

“The social implications of these results are important; many minority students might not be getting input from instructors that stimulates intellectual growth and fosters achievement,” says Harber, in a recent Rutgers University news release. “Some education scholars believe that minorities under-perform because they are insufficiently challenged—the ‘bigotry of lowered expectations,’ in popular parlance.”

What do you think? Can praise be a disguise for lowered expectations? PAR wants to hear from you, so leave a comment and join the conversation!

 

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Psychiatric Community Considers Name Change for PTSD

What’s in a name? For young veterans and others coping with post-traumatic stress disorder, a name could mean the difference between seeking treatment and suffering alone. Psychiatrists and military officers are now considering the implications of a name change for PTSD in an effort to reduce the stigma associated with this diagnosis. The new name under consideration? Post-traumatic stress injury, or PTSI.

“No 19-year-old kid wants to be told he’s got a disorder,” said General Peter Chiarelli, in a May 5 interview with the Washington Post. Until his retirement in February of this year, Chiarelli was the nation’s second-highest ranking Army officer, and he led the effort to reduce the suicide rate among military personnel. He and other supporters of the name change believe that using the word “injury” instead of “disorder” will reduce the stigma that stops soldiers and others from seeking treatment. According to Chiarelli, “disorder” suggests a pre-existing condition that “makes the person seem weak.” “Injury,” on the other hand, is appropriate because the condition is caused by the experience of specific trauma, according to supporters of the change. Injuries, they point out, can often be healed with treatment.

This issue is coming to a head because the American Psychiatric Association is working on a new edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM), expected in May 2013. Not everyone is in favor of the name change; one of the major concerns, according to psychologist Sherrie Bourg Carter, is that “altering a diagnostic label may have far-reaching financial implications for health insurers and disability claims. Specifically, some insurers and government agencies may not be willing to reimburse mental health providers for a condition that isn’t considered a disease or disorder” (Psychology Today blog, May 6).

American Psychiatric Association President Dr. John Oldham has suggested that he would be open to considering the name change. “If it turns out that that [the word ‘injury’] could be a less uncomfortable term and would facilitate people who need help getting it, and it didn’t have unintended consequences that we would have to be sure to try to think about, we would certainly be open to thinking about it,” Oldham told PBS NewsHour in a December interview.

What do you think? Would a name change help reduce the stigma associated with post-traumatic stress and encourage people to seek the help they need? PAR wants to hear from you, so leave a comment and join the conversation!

 

Could a Blood Test Diagnose Major Depression in Teens?

Researchers at Northwestern University Medical School have suggested that depression in teens could be diagnosed with a simple blood test. Their study, published in the April 17, 2012 issue of Translational Psychiatry, identifies 11 biomarkers for early-onset major depressive disorder—one of the most common yet debilitating mental illnesses among young people. If the results are confirmed in larger populations, diagnosis could become a much simpler process, and one that might help teens avoid some of the stigma currently associated with a depression diagnosis.

Early-onset major depressive disorder is a serious mental illness that affects mainly teenagers and young adults. Although 2 to 4% of cases are diagnosed before adolescence, the numbers increase dramatically to 10-25% with adolescence, according to lead researcher Eva Redei, professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at the Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine. “Not diagnosed, depression affects how teens relate to others. The No. 1 cause of death among the depressed is suicide,” explained Redei in a recent interview with CNN. “If teens are depressed and not treated, there can be drug abuse, dropping out of school. Their whole lives can depend on these crucial and vulnerable years.”

In the study, researchers tested the blood of 28 teens, ages 15 to 19. Fourteen had been diagnosed as depressed, and the others were healthy. The researchers examined a panel of 28 markers that circulate in the blood; results showed that 11 of these markers could, with a high degree of accuracy, predict major depression in the subjects. Depression is currently diagnosed through psychological evaluations conducted by health care providers.

A blood test to diagnose depression could help reduce the stigma associated with this mental illness and help depressed teens to get the treatment and support they need. For many teens who are too embarrassed to ask for help, this blood test could be a huge step in the right direction. “Once you have a measurable index of an illness, it’s very difficult to say, ‘Just pull yourself together,’ or ‘Get over it,’” Redei explained recently to the Los Angeles Times.

Others are cautious in their response to the study. Dr. Lloyd Sederer, medical director of the New York State Office of Mental Health, suggests that this study could give parents and teens false hope about treatment. “When something like this comes out and gets a lot of attention, it’s a false promise to parents, because it’s nowhere ready for prime time,” he said in an interview with the Huffington Post. “Some of the risks have not been considered yet. And does it really shape, in any way, how effective your treatment is going to be now?”

What do you think? In what ways could a diagnostic blood test for depression affect treatment for your clients? PAR wants to hear from you, so leave a comment and join the conversation!

Stranger than Fiction

Who says psychology is just common sense? Sometimes the truth—as revealed by psychological research—truly is stranger than fiction.

“When you tell someone that you’re taking, teaching, or practicing psychology, you’re likely to get the reaction that ‘it’s all common sense,’” says Susan Krauss Whitbourne, Ph.D., a professor of psychology at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, in a recent article in Psychology Today.   “However, having taught introductory psychology for over 30 years, I’ve accumulated an armamentarium of facts to teach students that challenge this myth about psychology’s knowledge base.”

Whitbourne’s “armamentarium” includes some surprising facts:

  • Getting paid for doing something you like can make you less creative.
  • Maslow’s study of 3000 college students found that none met the criteria for self-actualization.
  • Placebos can often offer as much relief as actual treatments.
  • Posting a calorie chart in fast food restaurants leads people to choose less healthy foods.
  • Van Gogh probably developed the symptoms that led to his hospitalization from absinthe poisoning.
  • Rorschach’s nickname as a child was “Inkblot.”
Thinking about these kinds of strange-but-true phenomena may be important for more than just countering the “common sense” charge.  Considering the unusual, the unlikely, and the counterintuitive may be a useful way to stretch the imagination and explore unconventional ideas.  In his book 50 Great Myths of Popular Psychology*, Emory University Professor and PAR author Scott Lilienfeld and his coauthors examine common misconceptions about human behavior. A short postscript at the end of the book, however, includes a fascinating group of unexpected findings from psychological research, including:
  • Patients who have experienced strokes resulting in severe language loss are better at detecting lies than people without brain damage.
  • Handshake style is predictive of certain personality traits. Women with firm handshakes tend to show more openness, intellectual curiosity, and willingness to seek out novel experiences.
  • Dogs really do resemble their owners. In one study, judges matched faces of dog owners to their dogs at significantly better than chance levels—although this was true only with purebred, not mixed-breed dogs.

“Many of these findings may strike us as myths because they are counterintuitive, even bizarre,” says Lilienfeld.  “They remind us to doubt our common sense” (p. 247).

What do you think? What research results have been surprising to you? Have unexpected findings changed the way you think or work?  PAR wants to hear from you, so leave a comment and join the conversation!

*Lilienfeld, S., Lynn, S.J., Ruscio, J., & Beyerstein, B.L. (2010). 50 Great Myths of Popular Psychology. Hoboken, NJ: Wiley-Blackwell.

PAR Supports Children’s Mental Health Awareness Day

National Children’s Mental Health Awareness Day, an annual event hosted by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), will be celebrated on Wednesday, May 9, 2012.  PAR has always been a strong advocate for children’s mental health, and we are delighted to announce our participation as a “Champion Level”

co-sponsor of this year’s program.

On May 9, PAR will be joining SAMHSA for a special evening program at the George Washington University Lisner Auditorium in Washington, DC.  This program will be a tribute to honor children and youth who have demonstrated resilience after traumatic experiences, as well as their “Heroes of Hope,” people in their lives who have helped and inspired them along the way.  The American Art Therapy Association has put together a unique exhibit featuring artwork from students all across the country, which will be displayed during the event.  Kathleen Sebelius, Secretary of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, will present a Special Recognition Award to artist, advocate, and Awareness Day Honorary Chairperson Cyndi Lauper, whose work with her True Colors Fund and the True Colors Residence exemplifies the “Hero of Hope” spirit. Live performances by youth from around the country will also honor the young people and their heroes.

Since its inception more than 30 years ago, PAR has been giving back to our community in the form of volunteer time and financial support. We understand the importance of children’s mental health, and we are proud to work with organizations like SAMHSA to promote awareness of this vital issue.  Children and wellness have always been priorities, and through the years we have supported organizations that help families including the United Way, A Brighter Community, the PACE Center for Girls, the Children’s Home of Tampa, and many others.  To learn more about PAR’s community service work, please visit our Community PARtners page.