World Notes

What America can learn from Brazil about fighting poverty


US_states_by_poverty_rate_svg It may seem counter intuitive to give poor families money just for sending their kids to school,  keeping a full time job, and buying healthy foods.  But what if that’s what works?                    

Programs in the United States have long been providing financial assistance to families in the form of Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) and Federal level food stamp programs, to name a few.  Some good has been done, but all too often the result has been a continuation of poverty and its many problems. 

Now New York is reviewing an approach with a better track record:  giving assistance to mothers who commit to keeping their kids in school and healthy. 

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The placebo strikes again! Here's how we can harness it for better medicine


Four Placebos The trouble with placebos is that they work.  They shouldn’t.

Placebos ... a harmless sugar pill given that patients are told it is an actual drug ... have a long track record of curing, healing, and improving the lives of patients.  Often a bigger track record than the actual drugs themselves. 

Placebos work.  They shouldn’t.  We don’t know why they do. 

We have a better idea, however, of how they don’t work. 

Much previous research with placebos was based on the idea of deception – that doctors were lying to patients to convince them that the placebo was a real drug. 

Recent research suggests that’s not the case. 

A team of leading placebo researchers from the Harvard Medical School’s Osher Research Center and Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center looked at the effectiveness of placebos pills on patients who knew they were taking placebos. The study was published in the December 22 issue of PLoS ONE.

It turns out that letting patients in on the “secret” had very little impact on the effectiveness of the placebo. 

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Pretending to be happy makes other people miserable


466px-Depression-loss_of_loved_one When you’re having a lousy day and someone asks “How are you?” ... what do you do?

If you’re like most people, you lie.  You decide that the truth won’t go over well and push down your negative emotions. 

But just because it’s common doesn’t mean there aren’t consequences.  What does publicly denying our unhappiness do to our well being, and what effect does it have on others?

Researchers from the University of California Berkeley, Stanford University, and Syracuse University recently answered those questions in a study called “Misery Has More Company Than People Think: Underestimating the Prevalence of Others’ Negative Emotions”

Their conclusion:  People think that others are happy even when they may not be. Believing that others are happier than them can lead to rumination, loneliness and feeling less satisfied with life.

In other words, we’ve got to stop doing this.  Sure, sometimes it’s not appropriate to say “I’m miserable, actually” – but when we put on a happy face, people believe us, and it causes problems.

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2011 is the year to fight psychiatry and the pharmaceutical industry for your mind


DelacroixTasso According to epidemiologists 30% of Americans will be diagnosed with a mental illness in 2011. That’s disturbing enough, but this is also the year when the definition of what a so-called “mental illness” is could change.  You could be mentally ill right now - and if the pharmaceutical companies get their way, you certainly will be.

The DSM-5, the very newest “Bible of psychiatry” is scheduled to come out, and as the publication date nears the battle is raging. 

Accoding to many critics, the DSM-5 will go out of its way to make many of the ordinary issues of life "treateable" by expensive medication.  They won't make your life any better, but they will pump you full of drugs.  Allen Frances, lead editor of the DSM-4, calls what’s happening now a “hoax.”  If it is, it will have a drastic impact on that 30% of Americans who get diagnosed – along with their families, friends, and loved ones. 

So, lets look at some of the hard and fast facts on this elusive and tenuous publication – and then examine why so many psychologists think the new DSM will give drug companies a license to medicate everyone for anything:

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Start the year by admitting that "willpower" isn't enough


2011 is upon us, and the New Year will find painful mornings at the gym, empty shelves in the dietPostcards2CardsNewYearsResolution1915  section of booksellers, and a renewed commitment to activities that bring purpose and happiness.  At least, for a while.

What are your New Year’s Resolutions—save money, quit smoking?  People are trying to cash in by helping you keep them.  There are even new apps for your phone designed to keep you on the path to self improvement:  NikeCouch to 5k (C25K), Mint (you guessed it—save cash!), and lastly—LeadMyGoals.

The motto “there’s an app for that” aside, how does one successfully accomplish and keep New Year’s Resolutions? Is it worth it?

A recent article in the Wall Street Journal makes a startling claim: forget willpower, reaching a goal means retraining the brain to form new habits.

Really?  Sounds like a direct contradiction to conventional wisdom. But here’s the argument: 

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Bullying kids into weight loss is still bullying


Anti-bullies art Parents in the Flagstaff, Arizona, school district were shocked to find their elementary school children coming home with letters from the district announcing that they were overweight. 

The children had been given a Body Mass Index test during gym, and the results – along with district commentary about how the children stacked up to the rest of the population and a demand that something be done – were sent to parents.

“They didn’t mail it home, they didn’t even bother putting it in an envelope,” parent Deborah Dela-Bruer told ABC News.  “It was stapled with a cover letter for her and her friends to see.”

The program doesn’t include improved nutrition (school lunches are notoriously unhealthy) or opportunities to exercise.  It also doesn’t test for actual health issues like high cholesterol or high blood pressure that are correlated with obesity but not limited to it (some people who are overweight don’t have these issues, while some people who aren’t overweight do). 

Doing such things would be harder than publicly sending a “fat note” home to parents, and more expensive.  The takeaway, then, is that childhood obesity is a crisis of epic proportions ... but not enough to inconvenience adults over.    

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Do you ever outgrow adolescence? (Yes. Yes you do)


High_Resolution_FMRI_of_the_Human_Brain According to Newsweek, you never escape high school.

The magazine reports that recent studies - based on MRI scans - have concluded that teenage brains are in a crucial developmental phase, and what happens to you as a teenager will in large part determine the rest of your life.

“This emerging research,” wrote Russ Juskalian, “sheds light not only on why teenagers act the way they do, but how the experiences of adolescence—from rejection to binge drinking—can affect who we become as adults, how we handle stress, and the way we bond with others.”

Naturally we’re all very impressed.  This research telling us that teenage years are crucial to development is surely the most important research on personality since the research telling us that the years from 0-3 are a crucial to development and determine what happens to you for the rest of your life. 

Also, there’s the research telling us that the brains of people in middle age are still developing and that middle aged people can change their lives and develop in wholly new ways. 

And – let’s not forget – the research telling us that the brains of senior citizens are still developing and that seniors can change fundamentally ... affecting who they are for the rest of their lives. 

So ... if I get the research right ... the years when you are a child, an adolescent, an adult, and senior are all crucial developmental phases that explain who you are for the rest of your life.  Is that it?

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Haley Barbour isn't the only person in America with public amnesia


James Meredith walks to class We all forget things, from time to time.  Last week, I forgot where I put my keys. 

This week, Mississippi Governor Haley Barbour forgot what it was like to live through the civil rights era.

In comments that are fast becoming as infamous as “Houston, we have a problem,” Barbour said that he recalled growing up in Mississippi during the civil rights era, and that “I just don’t remember (the conflict over integration) as being that bad.” He also claimed that secret segregationist groups called Citizen Councils were in fact protecting law, order, and black people. 

These are the kinds of claims that it takes someone with an internet connection maybe 10 minutes to debunk – if they use dial-up.  Yet Barbour, a major Republican figure and potential presidential candidate, somehow didn’t realize he was painting a bulls-eye on his political future when he made them. 

That’s a lot worse than losing your keys.  How did this happen? 

Conventional wisdom is saying that this is pure cynical politics … a deliberate extension of the infamous Republican “southern strategy” that plays off racial divisions to capture public office.  And sure – okay:  anyone who says “politicians are being cynical and manipulative!” gets an easy A.  But is there more going on? 

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What does it take to keep college students from depression and suicide?


Gustave Courbet - Le Désespéré The numbers of college students seeking mental health services has increased over the years. More students are reporting that they’re not coping with college, and pleas for help are showing up on Facebook posts and from classmates who see their friends struggling hard just to keep going.

We’re not just talking about reports of stress or anxiety, we’re talking about suicide attempts and nervous breakdowns.  According to a report by the American College Health Association (ACHA), in 2008, 1 in 3 college students reported that they felt so depressed that they were not able to function. About 1 in 10 reported they had thoughts of suicide.  One out of 100 students attempted to commit suicide, 133 students were successful.  These numbers are bleak.

The most painful stories are about the students who shatter to such a devastating degree that in their grief and rage they take other students with them.

Is this a sign of the times or has this been a constant presence in the lives of young college students?

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The stigma attached to mental illness is unfair, unjust ... and unchanged


Goya Casa de locos Research has shown that there is little to no relationship between “mental illness” and violent behavior.

But try telling the public that. 

Stereotypes are powerful, and not only is this one a thousand of years old, but it’s reinforced every night on prime time when cop shows and procedural dramas portray schizophrenic or psychotic killers. 

This fear has serious consequences:  the General Social Survey (GSS) showed that as of 2006 the majority of people were not willing to work closely or socialize with the person in the vignette who was schizophrenic or alcohol dependent. They even indicatd that they are unwilling to have them as neighbors, marry into their families and even perceived them as being potentially violent. Major depression was not seen as being dangerous, but the stigma related to this was still unchanged.

Given that the link between mental illness and violent behavior is illusory, it sounds like this is just the kind of damaging stereotype that needs to be corrected by a public awareness campaign.  The trouble is it’s been tried, several times, and it’s not working. 

In fact, the GSS shows that American attitudes towards mental illness have changed very little from 1996 – 2006.

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