Jacob Barnett, a 12-year-old boy from Hamilton County, Indiana, has caught the attention of researchers from some of the most prestigious universities in the country with his challenge to Einstein’s theory of relativity. Jacob grasps some of the most complex concepts in mathematics and physics. Instead of junior high school, he attends Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis (IUPUI), where there is a movement to get him on board as a paid research assistant. Recently, he created a YouTube video in which he explains his work, using markers on the windows of his home to show the mathematical calculations behind some of his ideas. Not bad for a boy who didn’t speak his first words until after his second birthday and has been diagnosed with Asperger’s disorder, a mild form of autism. But then again: Einstein didn’t speak until age four, and many psychiatrists now believe that he may have had Asperger’s disorder, as well.

Early on, Jacob’s parents were concerned that he might have problems in school. “Oh my gosh, when he was two, my fear was that he would never be in our world at all,” Jacob's mother told The Indianapolis Star last month. “He would not talk to anyone. He would not even look at us.” Instead, his abilities have soared. He taught himself algebra, geometry, and calculus, leaving high school at age eight and enrolling at IUPUI, where he is currently studying and excelling in his advanced physics and mathematics courses.

Although they give him plenty of opportunities to explore his interest in physics, Jacob’s parents also insist that he spend time with friends his own age. He plays video games and basketball with friends; he has a girlfriend and he recently attended his first dance.

In his YouTube video, Jacob explains his expanded hypothesis, based on Einstein’s theory of relativity. Professors at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, New Jersey have followed Jacob’s work with interest. “The theory that he’s working on involves several of the toughest problems in astrophysics and theoretical physics,” Professor Scott Tremaine wrote to Barnett’s family.

Jacob’s professors at IUPUI agree. “We have told him that after this semester . . . enough of the bookwork. You are here to do some science,” physics professor John Ross told The Indianapolis Star. “If we can get all of those creative juices in a certain direction, we might be able to see some really amazing stuff down the road.”
As those who work in the field of mental health know only too well, mental illness carries a stigma that adds a significant burden to the challenges already facing many clients. Unlike other medical conditions such as cancer or heart disease, mental illness is often seen as a personal weakness or a character flaw. The detrimental effects of this stigma are well understood. In his 1999 Mental Health Report, former Surgeon General David Satcher asserted that “Stigma assumes many forms, both subtle and overt. It appears as prejudice and discrimination, fear, distrust, and stereotyping. It prompts many people to avoid working, socializing, and living with people who have a mental disorder. Stigma impedes people from seeking help for fear the confidentiality of their diagnosis or treatment will be breached.”

What perpetuates the stigma? Unfortunately, it’s not just outdated social attitudes. In fact, negative images and distortions about mental illness abound in current popular media. The National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI), an advocacy group for people affected by mental illness, publishes a regular column on their website called “StigmaBusters”, which asks members to send in alerts about stereotypes they find in the media. Examples include a November 2010 episode of the popular musical comedy “Glee”, which mocked and trivialized bipolar disorder in a scene where a “crazed” Mary Todd Lincoln is shown shouting at a teapot. A recent issue of Vs., a high-end fashion magazine, features actress Eva Mendes as a patient in a psychiatric institution, writhing on a bed to keep from being restrained. A new television commercial for Burger King shows “The King” on a rampage, chased and then taken away by men in white coats. Some of the most egregious examples have appeared around Halloween. This past fall, “The Pennhurst Asylum,” a Halloween “insane asylum” attraction, opened on the grounds of the former Pennhurst State School and Hospital outside Philadelphia, sparking a controversy that included protests from former residents of the facility (http://www.nami.org/).

If negative images in the media are helping to form the popular perception of mental illness, what are some ways to help clients cope with their effects and counter the stereotypes that the images perpetuate? Advocacy organizations like NAMI offer support to individuals with mental illness and their families, and participating in groups like “StigmaBusters” is one way that people can become advocates, doing their part to fight inaccurate and hurtful representations of mental illness. The Mayo Clinic website (http://www.mayoclinic.com/health/mental-health) is another excellent resource that describes steps to cope with stigma, including advice on how to seek support and educate others about mental illness.

And it’s not all bad news in the media. The Voice Awards, sponsored by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), recognize writers and producers of television and film who have given voice to people with mental health problems by incorporating dignified, respectful, and accurate portrayals of people with mental illness into their scripts, programs, and productions. In 2010, a Voice Award for best documentary went to actor Joe Pantoliano for his film No Kidding, Me Too!, which explores the journey of several individuals with mental illness and includes a candid account of his personal struggle with depression. Although best known for his roles in The Matrix, Memento, and the televisions series “The Sopranos,” Pantoliano is an activist, working to raise social awareness and understanding of mental health through a non-profit organization that he created to encourage members of the entertainment industry to help educate the public about mental illness. “We know this is a tough fight,” says Pantoliano. “We know years of ingrained socialization causes people to recoil or isolate anyone with the scarlet letter of mental illness…. However, we also know that by releasing the talents of those with mental illness—by giving them the opportunity to use their outstanding artistic and intellectual skills—we will vastly improve the world. And this is a cause worth supporting” (http://nkm2.org/about-us/).

In your practice, is stigma affecting your clients? How do you help clients to cope with stigma, and what resources have you found to be most useful? We want to hear from you, so post your comments and let’s start the conversation!
While federal and state mental health parity laws have seemingly made access to mental health services easier for individuals, a new study released in the April issue of Psychiatric Services, the journal of the American Psychiatric Association, says that many of those surveyed were not aware of their extended benefits.

Researchers studied the results of Timothy’s Law, New York’s state mental health parity law, by conducting telephone interviews with 54 employed individuals who had private insurance. Of the 54 respondents, 32 were adults diagnosed with mental illness and 22 were parents of children diagnosed with mental illness.

Most of those surveyed had been informed of their insurance coverage benefits before the state parity law went into effect in 2007, but were not aware of the extended coverage as a result of the law. Individuals also reported that their health plan provided unclear or incomplete information about their benefits, they had more difficulty obtaining information on mental health benefits than on medical/surgical benefits, and they felt their insurance companies were managing their mental health care benefits more aggressively than their medical/surgical benefits.

Those surveyed also reported difficulty finding a high-quality mental health care provider in their network as well as problems with health plan provider lists, such as outdated provider lists and long waits for appointments.

Forty-nine states have passed mental health parity legislation. What can be done in other states to educate individuals on their mental health benefits? What do you know about your state’s benefits?

To read more about this study, click here.
PAR author Dr. Lisa Firestone and PsychAlive are proud to host a free Webinar this summer with Dr. Dan Siegel, award-winning UCLA clinical professor and executive director of the Mindsight Institute.

Mindsight: Learning a New Science of Personal Transformation   


A free Webinar for the general public with Dr. Dan Siegel


Tuesday, June 14, 2011, 2:00 p.m.-3:00 p.m. EST


Seeing the inner world more clearly and learning to shape it toward health are the fundamental health-promoting capacities of “mindsight.” Mindsight underlies both social and emotional intelligence. This webinar will offer an overview and practical interventions regarding mindsight and its application to strengthening the mind, the brain, and human relationships.

To learn more, visit www.glendon.org and click on Upcoming Webinars; to register now, click on https://www1.gotomeeting.com/island/webinar/registration.tmpl?id=220778937

PAR author David J. Schretlen, PhD, will be giving a workshop at the annual conference of the American Academy of Clinical Neuropsychology (AACN) in Washington, D.C., on June 9, 2011.  Dr Schretlen’s workshop, entitled “Threats to the Validity of Inference in Neuropsychology and Novel Methods of Practice to Help Overcome Them,” will encourage participants to consider fundamental questions about inference in clinical psychology:

  • How do we decide when a neuropsychological examination is abnormal?
  • What constitutes “impaired” test performance?
  • When does a set of abnormal test scores represent a clinically meaningful pattern?

 

Dr. Schretlen will describe three basic approaches to clinical inference (pathological signs, deficit measurement, and pattern analysis) and examine the underlying logical assumptions, implementation, strengths, and threats to the validity of each inferential method.  Participants will examine the conceptualization and assessment of pathognomonic signs and cognitive deficits and will discuss the risky practice of sysgiving additional tests to clarify ambiguous findings.  Dr. Schretlen will describe what it means to “calibrate” test performance for demographic characteristics and estimated premorbid ability, and how this fundamentally alters the meaning of high and low test scores.  Participants will learn about the circumstances under which raw scores can be more informative than demographically calibrated scores.  Finally, Dr. Schretlen will argue that symptom validity testing differs from effort testing, and he will present findings from an experiment designed to assess cognitive effort among adults with no incentive to feign impairment and no evidence of symptom exaggeration.

Dr. Schretlen is Associate Professor of Medical Psychology in the Departments of Psychiatry and Radiology at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine.  He is the author of the Calibrated Neuropsychological Normative System™ (CNNS™) and the companion Software Portfolio (CNNS™-SP), which are designed to assist clinicians and researchers in their interpretation of the tests that make up the normative system.  To learn more about how to improve the precision of neuropsychological test interpretation with the CNNS and to see a list of tests calibrated by the CNNS, visit www.parinc.com 



PAR author Ira L. Cohen, PhD, will be presenting during the Association for Psychological Science (APS) Annual Convention in Washington, DC taking place from May 26 through May 29, 2011.

Dr. Cohen’s poster presentation, “Arousal-Modulated Fixation on Flashing Light Patterns in At-Risk Four-Month-Old Infants is Associated with Autism Severity Scores in Childhood,” is scheduled to take place on Thursday, May 26, 2011, from 8 to 9 p.m. in Columbia Hall at the Washington Hilton.

Dr. Cohen is the author of the PDD Behavior Inventory™ (PDDBI™) and the PDD Behavior Inventory™−Screening Version (PDDBI™-SV).

For more information about the APS Annual Convention, click here.

 

1. Why did you choose to enter the field of psychology?

I was 8 years old when I decided that I wanted to be a psychologist. I had come across a series of books my sister had about human nature in which the term was often mentioned. While I did not really understand what being a psychologist meant at the time, things in the books such as pictures of the brain and visual illusions made a lasting impression on me. During high school I developed an interest in the etiology and treatment of substance abuse in adolescents. While my career path eventually led largely away from that topic, it cemented my dedication to a career in psychology.

 2. What made you decide initially to develop the TEC?

During the development of the BRIEF-A, Peter Isquith, Gerry Gioia, and I had engaged in discussions about assessment and functional neuroimaging of executive functions. We became interested in the idea of developing an instrument that would involve executive function tasks often used in neuroimaging studies but that had not been standardized for use as a clinical measure.

 3. What would you like to tell people about the TEC that they may not know?

It took 7 years from the initial discussion about developing a new measure to publication of the TEC. A great deal of time was spent developing the measure, trying different parameters, selecting stimuli, making other adjustments and changes to the task and reports based on pilot testing, analyzing data, and writing and editing the manual. It was a true labor of love.

 4. What would you like to tell people about yourself that they may not know?

I have been studying executive functions, using a variety of methods (neuropsychological measures, ERPs, fMRI, questionnaires) for the past 20 years. I love writing and mentoring scientific papers. I am a trilingual Canadian from Montreal Quebec who speaks English, French, and Hungarian (the latter being my parents’ native language).

 5. How do you spend your free time? (hobbies, books are you reading, movies you enjoy, pets, etc.)

I most enjoy spending time with my two sons and other family members. Other than that, reading history and historical fiction related to Europe, tourism, watching movies (lots of kid-friendly fare, but also romantic comedies and sci-fi, as well as just about anything that has to do with historical events pre-1919), listening to hard rock and heavy metal music, and following the National Hockey League (go Habs!).
In January of this year, the once-taboo subject of teen suicide was brought front-and-center with students at Oak Lawn Community High School in Chicago. According to a recent Chicago Tribune article entitled “Teen suicide: More schools bring issue out of shadows” (February 21, 2011), each Oak Lawn freshman received a short questionnaire about depressive symptoms and suicidal thoughts. Uncomfortable questions were asked: Had they lost interest in everything? Did they feel they weren’t as smart or good-looking as most other people? Were they thinking about killing themselves? For three years, Oak Lawn has been screening freshmen for signs of depression or suicidal thinking. This year, 270 students filled out the questionnaire in their health classes, and a fifth of them were referred to counselors for follow-up interviews. About half of those teens were offered free in-school therapy or referrals to outside counselors.

Until recently, the topic of teen suicide was avoided by many schools. “There were some people who felt that if you talk about it, you might motivate students or put the thought in students’ minds,” said John Knewitz, the school district’s assistant superintendent for student services, speaking with Tribune reporter John Keilman. “The more we studied it, we came to the realization that that was not the case. It was something that needed to be talked about openly” (http://articles.chicagotribune.com).

Last year, Illinois passed a law encouraging teachers and school staff to update their training on suicide prevention. Erika’s Lighthouse, a mental health advocacy group formed in memory of a girl who took her life at 14, offers programs to Chicago area middle schools that help students and their families recognize the signs of depression; the group also offers instruction to school officials. In response to recent suicides, other schools have updated their health curriculum to include depression and suicide, started Facebook pages for mental health awareness, and provided mental health hotline numbers on the back of student IDs.

Screening for childhood and adolescent depression and suicidal ideation may become more common in the coming years as schools try to find ways to address these and other mental health crises in their student population. How are schools in your area responding to this issue? Is the topic of teen suicide avoided, or are there programs in place that address it directly with students?

Let’s start the conversation—PAR wants to hear from you!
Last week, 22-year-old James Durbin wowed the audience—as well as viewers all across the country—as his amazing voice and incredible performing style helped catapult him to the next round on the popular television program “American Idol.” Now among only seven finalists in the competition, Durbin seems unstoppable. Yet success has not come easily to this young Californian, who copes with the twin diagnoses of Asperger’s and Tourette’s disorders. Since his appearance on “American Idol,” Durbin has been very open about the effect of these two conditions on his life and his musical career.

Although awareness of Asperger’s disorder (a high-functioning form of autism) has grown in recent years, Tourette’s is less well known. According to the National Institutes of Health, Tourette’s is a neurological disorder characterized by repetitive, stereotyped, involuntary movements and vocalizations called tics. The early symptoms are almost always noticed first in childhood, with the average onset between the ages of 7 and 10 years. Tourette’s occurs in people from all ethnic groups; males are affected about three to four times more often than females. It is estimated that 200,000 Americans have the most severe form, and as many as one in 100 exhibit milder and less complex symptoms such as chronic motor or vocal tics or transient tics of childhood. Although Tourette’s can be a chronic condition with symptoms lasting a lifetime, most people with the condition experience their worst symptoms in their early teens, with improvement occurring in the late teens and continuing into adulthood.

Durbin’s positive attitude and his success as a performer have made him a hero for many children with Tourette’s disorder. Durbin says that he loves hearing that people are inspired by his history of overcoming adversity. “It fuels me to do better and to push myself even further,” he told USA Today in a March 8 interview.

In the past, television and movies have often highlighted Coprolalia, a form of Tourette’s disorder in which patients curse or spit out racial epithets uncontrollably. In reality, only about ten percent of patients have this severe form of Tourette’s. With the media attention generated by performers like Durbin, some common misconceptions can be dispelled, and the public can see a person with Tourette’s who is talented, successful, and popular. Durbin summed it up on a recent episode of “American Idol” when he said, “I have Tourette’s and Asperger’s, but Tourette’s and Asperger’s don’t have me.”


Ira L. Cohen, PhD, author of the PDD Behavior Inventory™ (PDDBI™) and the PDD Behavior Inventory™: Screening Version (PDDBI™-SV), which will be released next month, will be giving a poster presentation at the International Meeting for Autism Research (IMFAR) hosted by the International Society for Autism Research (INSAR).

Dr. Cohen’s presentation, “Reliability and Validity of the PDD Behavior Inventory-Screening Version (PDDBI-SV) Scoring System,” will discuss the software portfolio that accompanies his new product.

IMFAR 2011 will be held at the Manchester Grand Hyatt in San Diego, California from May 12-14, 2011. For more information about IMFAR 2011, visit www.autism-insar.org.