Category: Emotional Intelligence

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Photography Documenting Mental Illness Draws Criticism

00Caregiving, Emotional Intelligence, Empathy, Featured news, Health, Relationships, Resilience March, 17

Source: ethermoon on flickr, Creative Commons

For the past six years, Melissa Spitz of St. Louis, Missouri has been using photography to illustrate her mother’s experience with mental illness, referring to it as a form of “documentary photography”.

The photographs taken of Melissa’s mother Deborah are shared on Melissa’s professional website and on her Instagram in a project she calls “You Have Nothing to Worry About.” They artfully depict Deborah’s lifelong struggle with bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, depression, dissociative identity disorder, and problem drinking.

In an interview with Time Magazine, Melissa explained that the series aims to provide an intimate look into the life of an individual suffering from mental illness. She told Dazed Digital:

“For me, mental illness has a face and a name—and that’s mum.”

Melissa first became aware of her mother’s mental-health problems when she was a child, and Deborah had to be institutionalized for “psychotic paranoia”. After years of anger and blame, Melissa picked up her camera as a way of confronting her mother’s disorder head-on.

The project became an emotional outlet for Melissa to facilitate healing. In an interview with Aint Bad Magazine, she explained:

“By turning the camera toward my mother and my relationship with her, I capture her behavior as an echo of my own emotional response. The images function like an ongoing conversation.”

Research published in the Journal of Public Health has shown that creative media can serve as powerful tools to help people express feelings of grief. Art therapy specifically can provide a means of expression, relieve emotional tension, and offer alternative perspectives.

Through her project, feelings of pain and hurt that Melissa held toward her mother were ameliorated, and she found herself feeling greater empathy, visually acknowledging her mother’s struggle with mental illness.

While the project is not without its merits, the provocative nature of the photographs—ranging from Deborah’s hospitalization to images of her unclothed and bruised—may elicit shock and discomfort in viewers.

Which raises the question: where do we draw the line between exploitation and freedom of expression in art depicting mental illness?

Laura Burke, a drama therapist from Nova Scotia, Canada, sees Melissa’s project as crossing an ethical line. Laura was diagnosed with schizophrenia in 2005, and has suffered from depression her entire life. She believes that people with mental illness are often spoken for, and this is a common trap in representing their lives through art.

In an interview with The Trauma and Mental Health Report, Laura commented on Melissa’s project:

“It appears sensitively done, but the line between exploitation and reverence is a tough one to walk. If the focus was more explicitly on Spitz’s perspectives of her mother, and not an objective account of how things happened, which is sometimes how a photo can appear, I might feel more comfortable with it.”

Another issue that can arise is the power differential between photographer and subject. Even when consent is provided, subjects who struggle with mental health issues are particularly vulnerable when someone else is formulating the vision and acting as “the voice” of the art piece.

Laura addressed this concern in her interview:

“I feel that focusing more on the family member’s experience, and less on the subject living with the mental illness would be a less exploitative choice.”

Melissa is aware of the criticism her project has garnered from audiences. In an interview with Time Magazine, Melissa said:

“I am fully aware that my mother thrives on being the center of attention and that, at times, our portrait sessions encourage her erratic behavior. My hope for the project is to show that these issues can happen to anyone, from any walk of life and that there is nothing to be ashamed about.”

Despite the criticism, art can be transformative for both the artist and the audience by exposing mental illness in its rawest form. Max Houghton, a Senior Lecturer in Photojournalism and Documentary Photography at the London College of Communication, appreciates what Melissa’s project can do, and how it can help break down stigma surrounding mental illness.

Houghton told BBC News:

“I think photojournalism is criticised when it looks at the miserable side of life and depressing issues. However, in the right hands, photography can be used as a tool to discover and tell important stories differently”.

Projects like Melissa’s You Have Nothing to Worry About often spark much needed discussion around mental illness and are important and necessary to address stigma. And yet, one is left wondering whether such depictions of the vulnerable may do more harm than good.

–Nonna Khakpour, Contributing Writer, The Trauma and Mental Health Report

–Chief Editor: Robert T. MullerThe Trauma and Mental Health Report

Copyright Robert T. Muller

This article was originally published on Psychology Today

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Learning to Manage Emotions Boosts Children’s Well-being

00Child Development, Education, Emotion Regulation, Emotional Intelligence, Empathy, Featured news, Relationships February, 17

Source: holiveira on DeviantArt

English, Math, History, Geography…classes found in school curricula build foundational knowledge and promote future success.

Schools lay the groundwork for cognitive development, especially in academic areas. But what about emotional development? Proficiency in that is equally important for leading a successful life. Yet, little effort has been made in school to teach children how to manage their feelings.

With the introduction of RULER, this may not be the case for much longer. More and more schools around the U.S. are implementing the program aimed at teaching students—and teachers—to ‘Recognize, Understand, Label, Express, and Regulate’ emotions.

Supported by the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence, it incorporates social and emotional skills training into the school curriculum to support child development. Specific curricula are available from kindergarten to grade 12, and ongoing implementation is necessary to solidify these skills as children get older.

“They’ve started to teach students about feelings as explicitly as they teach math and reading,” writes Seattle Times education reporter John Higgins.

The program is based on the work of two psychologists, John Mayer and Peter Salovey, who began their scientific study of emotional intelligence over two decades ago. They focus on a direct link between critical-thinking skills and emotions.

According to Meyer and Salovey emotional intelligence is the ability to identify, monitor, and manage the emotions of others and oneself, to guide actions and ways of thinking.

Studies show that those who are reluctant to understand and express their feelings experience higher levels of anxiety, depression, and certain psychiatric disorders. They also report lower levels of well-being and social support.

At school, children experience a wide range of emotions every day. In addition to the stress of managing their studies and homework, they face a number of social struggles, such as conflicts with friends, romantic relationships, and bullying.

Marc Brackett, Director of the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence, and one of the developers of RULER, says that the way students feel at school has a profound effect on how they learn, influencing their chances of success at school, at home, and with friends. And some individuals are generally more successful at handling emotions than others.

Through different tools, RULER provides a common language for expressing emotions, for dealing with conflicts between students, and for addressing conflicts between students and teachers, making for an open and supportive environment necessary for learning. For example, the “mood meter,”—a sheet of paper divided into four coloured quadrants—is designed to help students build a vocabulary around different emotions.

“I have a teacher who checks in with the Mood Meter on Monday mornings and it’s nice to just know that someone’s listening. It gets us in the mood to work, eases us back into school,” explains a grade 11 high-school student in the program.

Other tools, such as the “meta-moment”, train students to use the few seconds following a moment of anger to take a deep breath and imagine how their “best self” would react.

One 7-year-old student talks about her experience with the meta-moment:

“When I’m not in a good mood, RULER can help me solve the problem. Like when my brother pushed sand on my sand castle and wouldn’t fix it. I felt really angry at him, but I took a meta-moment and realized it wasn’t hard to fix what he did and he didn’t do it on purpose. Then I felt a little more forgiving.”

Some are critical of social and emotional learning initiatives within a classroom setting, arguing that schools are not an appropriate venue for emotional education. Others emphasize the price-tag; an online resource and four days total of in-person training costs $10,500 per school (for up to three participants).

However, Brackett’s research shows that implementing RULER can improve a school’s climate while fostering positive development and academic achievement among its students. Some notable improvements include better relationships between students and teachers, more student autonomy and leadership, improved academic success, and fewer reports of bullying.

Students’ mental health profiles greatly improve as well. Kids and adolescents who are involved with this program have experienced reduced levels of anxiety, depression, aggression, hyperactivity, social stress, and alcohol and drug usage. And research shows how children’s ability to handle their emotions and to be mindful of others’ feelings has a significant effect on their mental health.

Not all children come with the tools necessary for academic and social success. Programs like RULER provide a platform for children to learn how to navigate emotional struggles, so they can leave their primary education with methods to succeed in their work and personal lives.

–Eleenor Abraham, Contributing Writer, The Trauma and Mental Health Report

–Chief Editor: Robert T. MullerThe Trauma and Mental Health Report

Copyright Robert T. Muller

This article was originally published on Psychology Today

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Prisoners Gain Understanding of Others Through Literature

00Emotional Intelligence, Empathy, Ethics and Morality, Featured news, Psychopathy, Social Life December, 16

Source: Homes and Antiques

Does reading have the ability to increase empathy? Writer and activist Alaa Al Aswany thinks so. He believes that the role of literature has been captured by the single word ‘also’ from the Dostoyevsky novel The House of the Dead, in which a prisoner, witnessing the death of another, comments “He, also, had a mother.” Aswany says that in this context, the word ‘also’ is an attempt to understand what is common to all humans, and that this understanding is the essence of literature.

Literature as a tool for human understanding and empathy… The idea has been a powerful socializing influence in a very unlikely setting: prison.

The organization Book Clubs for Inmates facilitates 22 book clubs across Canada to allow inmates in federal penitentiaries to read and discuss novels. Their slogan is‘Literacy, Self-Awareness and Empathy’. They reason that most inmates will re-enter society at some point and, by encouraging reading while in prison, the organization believes that prisoners can improve vital social skills.

Volunteers guide conversations through themes that range from self-sacrifice to overcoming adversity, and how these topics relate to inmates’ lives. Through these discussions, prisoners develop pro-social skills, such as taking turns speaking and listening, which may enable easier reintegration later on.

The Book Clubs for Inmates website claims that 85% of prisoners report improved reading skills; 90% realize improved communications skills; 93% report reduced recidivism; and 86% see the book clubs as an opportunity to engage in meaningful discussion.

One inmate expressed:

“The Book Club is an enormous source of intellectual and social—sometimes even spiritual—inspiration to both myself and the many others who attend. I have watched men in that group realize their potential to analyze and reflect that I don’t know if they even realized they had.”

Research conducted by David Kidd and Emanuele Castano at The New School for Social Research in New York provides evidence to support idea that literary fiction can enhance the capacity to understand the thoughts and feelings of others.

In their study, participants read randomly assigned texts, either non-fiction, thrillers, romance, or literary fiction. After reading, they perform a series of tasks to measure empathy, social perception, and emotional intelligence by examining how accurately the participants could identify emotions in others. For example, one task involves inferring emotion simply from a picture of someone’s eyes. Scores of empathy were significantly higher for those who had read the literary fiction.

Kidd and Castano explain this phenomenon as literary fiction’s ability to leave more to the imagination by not explaining characters’ behaviour explicitly. Readers then have the freedom to make inferences about characters’ thoughts and motivations. This kind of interpretation requires sensitivity to emotional nuance.

Kidd explains:

“In literary fiction, the incompleteness of the characters turns your mind to trying to understand the minds of others.”

Readers can then carry this awareness into the real world to understand others who are different and think differently. Kidd argues that this transference is to be expected:

“The same psychological processes are used to navigate fiction and real relationships. Fiction is not just a simulator of a social experience, it is a social experience.”

Current research in the neurosciences supports the idea that reading allows people to experience life from a character’s perspective. A study at Carnegie Mellon University found that reading a Harry Potter excerpt, in which Harry rides a broom, activates the same brain regions that would be responsible if one were to actually fly a broom. That is, readers live vicariously through the characters they read about in literary works.

Raymond Mar, a social psychologist at York University, stresses the role of fiction in teaching empathy to children as well, saying that “Even though fiction is fabricated, it can communicate truths about human psychology and relationships,” which can be very important lessons for the developing child.

Exposure to fiction can improve children’s social functioning, as well. Not only does it allow them to step into another’s shoes, improving empathy, but it helps to develop vocabulary for their feelings, allowing them to communicate more effectively. Mar viewsreading as developing their theory of mind, their ability to understand others’ thoughts, desires and motivations.

As one inmate said:

“When you’re reading books, you realize that the world’s not all about you. You’re not the only one going through these trials and tribulations. You get to have a little empathy for other people.”

–Caitlin McNair, Contributing Writer, The Trauma and Mental Health Report

–Chief Editor: Robert T. MullerThe Trauma and Mental Health Report

Copyright Robert T. Muller

This article was originally published on Psychology Today

Does Experiencing Therapy Make a Better Therapist?

00Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, Emotion Regulation, Emotional Intelligence, Empathy, Featured news, Psychoanalysis, Therapy February, 16
John Sloan on Flickr

Source: John Sloan on Flickr

It seems intuitive. Psychologically adjusted clinicians should provide better psychotherapy.

Aside from the stressors of their own daily life, therapists face the emotional struggles and traumas of their clients on a daily basis. To meet these challenges effectively and to avoid burnout, therapists need to maintain a high degree of self-awareness and personal wellbeing.

So how does experiencing therapy help clinicians with their work?

British psychotherapist Drew Coster says that personal psychotherapy has helped him broaden his repertoire of techniques and taught him to focus on achieving his clients’ goals instead of focusing on a prescriptive model of treatment. Similarly, Chicago psychologistGerald Stein has explained that going through therapy can help clinicians identify problems in their treatment approach based on their personal experiences.

Studies have also shown that the therapist’s wellbeing affects the quality of the relationship developed with the client. The clinician-client relationship is often referred to as thetherapeutic alliance and it is related to better therapy outcome regardless of the therapist’s specific style or school of thought.

Psychologists Leslie Greenberg of York University and Shari Geller of the University of Toronto, authors of the Therapeutic Presence: A Mindful Approach to Effective Therapy, argue that therapist self-care builds the foundation for developing a good therapeutic relationship with the client. Only through personal balance and stability can clinicians be fully present, attentive, and helpful during sessions.

Self-care can take many forms and can include going through therapy. For practitioners, experiencing their own therapy helps promote self-awareness and personal growth. And it allows them to address private issues and biases that would otherwise hinder progress in their clients. Becoming aware of one’s strengths and limitations can help therapists determine what clients to take on and when to refer clients to other therapists.

Traditional psychoanalysis is the only therapeutic orientation that requires the therapist-in-training to actually go through the therapy process. Self-reflection and exploration are key components of humanistic and experiential therapies. And while cognitive and behavioural approaches do not emphasize personal development on the part of practitioners, mounting evidence for the importance of solid therapeutic alliances may be shifting this tradition.

Psychiatrist Steven Reidford, argues: “At the most commonsense level, a therapist who knows what it is like to be a patient may be more empathic, and may anticipate unstated feelings more readily than a therapist without this first-hand knowledge.”

Reidford cites the requirement for practitioners of psychoanalysis to undergo therapy, explaining that the Freudian concepts of emotional transference and countertransference between patients and therapists are readily applicable to other therapeutic styles like CBT. Instead of relying on theory and patient-report data, he suggests experiencing the phenomena firsthand. He explains that therapists’ primary tool is their emotional sensitivity, which can be honed by attending psychotherapy and getting familiar with one’s own feelings and biases. He also notes that being in therapy de-stigmatizes the process and can help therapists see their patients as individuals instead of maladies.

Experiencing therapy may be helpful from a simpler, more practical standpoint. Associate professor James Bennett-Levy of the University of Sydney found in a recent study that students learning the cognitive therapy approach found personal therapy helpful in enhancing their understanding of the theory and process of treatment. They also found it helpful in gaining a better understanding of their role as a therapist, developing greater empathy, and gaining a better understanding of themselves.

Personal counselling also allows the therapist to experience what it feels like to be the client. Clinicians in Bennett-Levy’s study stated that personally experiencing the treatment process, beyond reading about it or conducting it, provided a deeper understanding of the models and techniques they were studying.

It is important to keep in mind that this research was based on the therapists’ self-evaluations. Are these benefits reflected in psychotherapy outcomes for clients?

Most research on therapy for therapists has focused on self-evaluations of the positive and negative effects. While clinicians purport to gain insight and professional skills by attending therapy, little research exists measuring the specific impacts of therapy for therapists on client satisfaction. Nevertheless, as with anyone, therapy can help clinicians gain self-awareness and empathy, which may otherwise wane as a result of life stress.

– Essi Numminen, Contributing Writer, The Trauma and Mental Health Report

– Chief Editor: Robert T. Muller, The Trauma and Mental Health Report

Copyright Robert T. Muller

This article was originally published on Psychology Today