Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Why Trayvon Martin's case matters to therapists

By now you likely know the basic details in the Trayvon Martin case: Trayvon Martin was a 17-year-old African American child who was shot and killed on his way home after purchasing a bag of Skittles and an iced tea; Trayvon was unarmed; the man who killed him was patrolling his neighborhood with a gun, and he chased Trayvon against the advice of the 9-1-1 operator; the man who killed Trayvon has not been arrested or charged with any crime; Florida has a broad-ranging self-defense law called "Stand your Ground" which may provide a defense for Trayvon's killer.

You have probably also heard some of the responses. Some very intelligent people have commented on what the Trayvon Martin case means, and I encourage you to read those commentaries. (Including these two on the psychology of guns and self-defense laws: Here and here.) There have also been some ill-reasoned responses, including the idea that children of color wearing hoodies in public are somehow asking for violence.

I keep asking myself why Trayvon's killer carrying a gun while on a neighborhood watch in a gated community. I wonder why he chose to run after Trayvon, and most importantly, why this killing is not being investigated further by the police.

But the question that motivated me to write today is this: Why aren't more mental health professionals talking about this? So let me explain briefly why I am asking that last question, and why I believe that we therapists have a responsibility to speak up against racism and other forms of oppression. (Of course, it matters to us because we are people, and this is a human issue. Let me be clear that I mean to say why it matters to us as professionals.)

Imagine, for a moment, that Trayvon Martin was your friend, or student, or neighbor. Whomever you choose--just imagine that he was more than a name in a newspaper. And further, imagine that you were walking with him that terrible night. And, that despite your best intentions, that you were unable to stop him from being killed. Because that can be similar to the reaction of those of us reading the story, hearing the details, seeing the pictures, asking ourselves how we would have reacted.

Further, imagine that Trayvon Martin looks like you do (or like you did when you were 17). How much stronger would your feelings of anger, helplessness, and fear be if you looked into a mirror and saw Trayvon Martin's face? (President Obama hinted at this when he spoke, saying "If I had a son, he would look like Trayvon.")

"Minority stress" is the term researchers use to describe the negative feelings that come from being a member of an oppressed minority. The idea of minority stress was novel when it was first researched, but now it has become an accepted reality in the mental health community.

In other words, we have known for years that merely being a member of an oppressed group is damaging to one's mental health.

But minority stress is different from other kinds of stress, in that it is cultural. Minority stress cannot be viewed as a part of normal human life, because the circumstances that produce it are not necessary. It is the result of the cumulative total of all of the Trayvon Martins through history; it is the result of a society in which we send the message repeatedly that one group is not entitled to the same safety, liberty and rights.

It falls on each of us to work to change the culture in which a case like Trayvon Martin's is possible. It is not an abstract concept or a job for the activists of the world--the psychological reality of racism goes deep into each of our hearts and minds, as the culture in which oppression exists is co-created by each of us every day. For those of us who are mental health professionals, we must be aware that each individual lives in a society which impacts that individual, and just as much as we have a duty to those who seek help from us, we have a responsibility to engage with our society and culture, which impacts all of us who live in it.

The fallout of the Trayvon Martin case is important for any of us who want to live in a society of law, in which justice is valued and pursued--and it should be of great concern for those of us who have dedicated our professional lives to the alleviation of human suffering.

Monday, March 26, 2012

Emotional Security

I had a conversation with a client recently about a subject that comes up often in therapy--emotional security.

Feeling safe emotionally is not the lack of feeling fear about bad emotions. It is very possible to feel fear when we are not actually in danger. When we see a horror movie, for example, we feel frightened, although we know we are safe.

Likewise, emotional security is not the absence of emotions, or the ability to turn emotions "off." Emotions are a part of our lives, and important both for our survival and for our well-being.

Basically, the idea of emotional security is the ability to cope with the emotions that we have in our lives. Some things are big and will produce big reactions, and those times might be more difficult. But even so, emotional security means being OK with strong feelings, and being able to face them.

So I propose that emotional security is being able to say, "No matter what happens, I believe that I will be able to cope with it." Saying that--and really believing it--I think that's a goal that's worthy of striving for.

Image credit: Syd Connelly and winning safety slogan, Library of Virginia.

Monday, March 19, 2012


Last week I flew to Dallas, Texas for to deliver two lectures to other clinicians. The weather was wonderful, and the people lived up to their reputation for southern hospitality.

During the course of both talks, I asked for the participants to give a definition of "strengths-based perspective." I got two different definitions, both of which I thought were pretty clever. At one talk, a woman said that "strengths-based perspective is what's strong about a person, instead of what's wrong about a person." At the other, another woman said (in a deep Texas accent), "Even someone who's 'tore up from the floor up' has something strong about them."

I liked both of these, and I started thinking about strengths-based work. Basically, it's what these definitions suggest: Starting therapy (or anything, really) from a place of where we are strong, where we have skills and resources, and then bringing those strengths, skills and resources to bear on the problems we want to change.

One of the beautiful things about strengths-based work is that it has the potential to succeed where other interventions do not. It is extremely practical, and applicable to a client's daily problems. The downside is that it can be difficult for clinicians. It requires reframing of concepts like "non-compliant," "resistant," and "dysfunctional."

However, strengths-based perspective is becoming common practice in many different mental health settings. I have heard clinicians of all different stripes talk about how a client's behavior is only dysfunctional in a particular setting, or how a client's maladaptive coping skills were developed as a way of coping with a difficult setting.

I also want to highlight that strength is often developed as a result of stress. Sometimes, strengths from one endeavor are easily transferable to another kind of endeavor. And sometimes, it is necessary to go out and experience new kinds of stress--intentionally--to build one's strength. Part of a strengths-based perspective is an understanding of how we get strong, where strength comes from, and what we can do to build on the strengths we already have.

Photo credit: Anthony Topper, used under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0.

Tuesday, March 13, 2012


This caught my eye this morning, and I thought I'd share it.

Thursday, March 8, 2012

How depressed is that mouse?

Before a drug can be brought to market, it goes through a lengthy testing period. And because there are limits to the kinds of experiments that can be done on humans, it is necessary for those researching pharmaceuticals to do experiments on animals--frequently mice.

This presents a particular problem for medications designed to improve mood--after all, we cannot ask a mouse if she feels more or less sad, or if she feels more like going to work than before the antidepressants. And, just like in humans, there is no blood test or brain scan that can diagnose depression.

So, how does a researcher measure depression in mice? This article in Scientific American answers that question--researchers use proxy measures. That would be behaviors that seem to indicate that the mouse is more or less depressed. For example:
The rat or mouse is placed into a cylinder partially filled with water from which escape is difficult. The longer it swims, the more actively it is trying to escape; if it stops swimming, this cessation is interpreted as depressionlike behavior, a kind of animal fatalism.

I'll leave it to others to decide if these proxy measures are actually measuring what they purport to measure.

Read the whole article here.