Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Counseling Corner: My country can beat your Independence Day, 9/11 and the World Cup brings us together.

USA! USA! USA!   The crowd chants, flags are flying, faces painted red, white and blue - the hope of a nation rests on the USA Soccer team....People line the street, decked out their red-white and blue, an elderly man marches proudly, a War World I Veteran, whose original Navy crackerjack blues still seem to fit after all these years.  The crowd stands in honor and applauds heartily, thanking him for his service to our nation......

In OUR town, the 4th of July parade is a local staple. Even thinking back to when I was a kid, and lived in a neighboring town, people from all around came to High Street in Pottstown, PA, to watch the parade, wave their flags, and show their pride in the USA. This annual tradition varies very little from year to year, but holds profound meaning for those who attend. The festivities are capped off with a very nice fireworks display, signifying "the rockets red glare, the bombs bursting in air". We feel pride, excitement and hope when we participate in this yearly ritual. I often shed a tear or two, especially when I see the war veterans in the parade and hear the bagpipes.  We fight the crowds, walk a mile, sometimes in the rain - uphill BOTH WAYS - but it is soooo worth it.

As my husband and I walked among the crowd this morning at the parade, I felt that familiar sense of pride, and a kinship with hundreds of people I do not know.  We are there for one reason - to celebrate our country's independence, to remind ourselves that we are a community, and to pass these traditions on to our children.  We remember that we are allowed to have such a parade because many gave their lives. we should not take this for granted. 

This morning, we took many photographs, to commemorate this day, and I have included several through this blog. The parade was fairly typical, the countless fire companies who participate (THANK YOU, FIREMEN!!), the Little League, and the giant duck, the steam calliope...the parade is predictable and provides a sense of continuity and safety. We know what to expect and we love it. It is OUR parade.

Today is about pride, and it is also about patriotism.  Patriotism is defined in Webster's Online Dictionary as "love or devotion for one's country". Michael J. Bader in his article "The Psychology of Patriotism" ( states that "Patriotism can be a force for good or for evil".  When I think about patriotism, I also reflect on other events as well...The World Cup, The Olympic Games, and the tragic events of 9/11.  These events bring us together as a nation, and we have a common sense of pride, belonging, and, especially in the case of 9/11, defensiveness. We have seen patriotism pull our nation together, as we did  in the days and weeks following 9/11/01. We have also seen the patriotism of other nations turn evil, as we witnessed the planes hitting the twin towers or in the case of Hitler in Nazi Germany.

But why patriotism and how does it work? Abraham Maslow defined a "hierarchy of needs", which included physiological needs, safety needs, need for belonging, esteem needs, and self-actualization.  Our safety needs and our need for belonging cause us to want to defend ourselves, our families, and ultimately, our country, and we do this in groups...parades, parties, vigils, or marches, because we need to feel a kinship with other like-minded individuals. Bader compares this patriotism to a family. We need to feel that sense of attachment and we also project our need for parental authority.  This was best seen through the Hurricane Katrina disaster, when people looked to their government for answers and assistance. Through patriotism, we have a sense of "we" that combats the isolation and loneliness that is so common in our modern society.

One aspect of Independence Day that we sometimes forget in the midst of all the parades, barbecues and fireworks, are the men and women who are serving in the armed forces around the world, those who have made the ultimate sacrifice so that we can "let freedom ring", and the families who are left behind. The American Psychological Association discusses important aspects of this on their website ( I have been a military spouse myself, and know firsthand the loneliness that can often arise on a day such as the Fourth of July.  My step-son is currently serving in Japan, and my son-in-law spent most of 2009 in Operation Iraqi Freedom.  To both of these young men in my life, and the thousands I do not know, I thank you. Because of you, I am flying my flag proudly today.

*Photos by Michael Herrigel

Friday, June 25, 2010

Counseling Corner: Friday Fun with Furry Friends

With all the talk - and heated debate- in the paper about animals: fish and fowl covered in oil in the gulf, people with too many cats, cats roaming around neighborhoods ruining flower-beds, dogs barking at all hours of the night, and finally, "Take your Dog to Work Day" on Friday June 25, I thought it would be nice to shout out to my own special four-legged friends and talk about the real mental health benefits of pet-ownership.

Take Your Dog to Work Day was first started in 1996 in the United Kingdom and June 25, 1999 in the United States. Created by Pet Sitters International, this day celebrates the great companions dogs make and encourages adoptions from local shelters, rescue groups and humane societies.

There is a growing body of research on pets and pet ownership that just confirms what any pet lover already knows: pets can enrich our lives and create a special bond. Pets become a member of the family. But what many people do not know, is that owning a pet can actually reduce stress, and decrease loneliness and help with depression. In addition, a four-legged friend can help prevent heart disease, and lower the cost of health care.

A study at the State University of New York at Buffalo showed that those who adopted a dog actually had lower blood pressure than non-pet owners.  In the elderly, pet-owners have better physical and mental health than non-pet owners.  The National Institutes of Health (NIH) reports that people with pets have fewer visits to the doctor than non-pet owners.

In addition to physical health benefits, animals can help us adjust to illness and loss, decrease anxiety, increase our sense of security,  allow us to increase social contact and become more active, and have something to care for, which has been shown to be a protective factor in suicide prevention.

As for me, I have owned pets my  entire life... cats when I was growing up, and adding a dog when I become an adult and lived on my own. I have found that having pets has helped me get through some of the most difficult times in my life, and have provided comfort and love when I was going  through a difficult divorce and was far from home living on the West coast. Pets are a wonderful addition to the family, and sometimes just what the doctor ordered!

Saturday, June 19, 2010

Celebrity Rehab, Intervention, Hoarders and Obsessed: Media brings light to mental health disorders

So, is that the way is REALLY is? This is a common question people ask when discussing these increasingly popular reality shows. Over the last several years, mental health disorders have been in the spotlight in television shows like Celebrity Rehab, Intervention, Hoarders and Obsessed. But is their portrayal of these disorders accurate?

Yes. And no. Mental illness and mental health disorders are complex, and are never that cut and dried. The facts are sobering (pun intended) and the reality is that, according to statistic from the National Institutes of Mental Health (NIMH), 26.2 percent of adults aged 18 and older suffer from a diagnosable mental health disorder in a given year. That's more than 1 in 4. 57.7 million people. Staggering. Preventable? Maybe. Treatable? Definitely.

Approximately 6 percent of those suffer from what is called a "serious mental illness". And, nearly half of those diagnosed with one mental health disorder, are diagnosed with 2 or more. Mental disorders are the number 1 cause of disability in the United States.

Some of the most common disorders are Mood Disorders (Depression, Bipolar Disorder), Anxiety Disorders (Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder, Generalized Anxiety Disorder, Social Anxiety and Phobia, and Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder), Disorders in Childhood (Autism, Aspergers), Eating Disorders (Anorexia, Bulimia, Binge Eating Disorder), as well as Schizophrenia and other psychotic disorders.

So, is the way that television portrays these disorders accurate? In a very generalized way, the individuals featured on these shows represent the extreme examples of the mental health disorders. Are there actually people who hoard items to the point that they cannot move in their homes? Sure. But more than likely, most patients have a combination of symptoms and a lesser form of hoarding.

When should you get help for a mental health disorder? If your symptoms are interfering with your normal daily routine, you are missing work, or your happiness is compromised, it is time to seek assistance. There are many very effective, research based, time limited treatments for many disorders, and finding an experienced and skilled psychologist is important in recovery. A psychologist is a professional who is most likely a doctor, and has specialized training and extensive experience in diagnosis, assessment and treatment of most common mental health disorders.

Do I need medication? Maybe, but not necessarily. Most mental health disorders respond quite well to therapy with a skilled psychologist. Some people have an imbalance in their chemical makeup, and require medication while they are developing skills to manage their symptoms. Psychologists will assess the need for referral to a psychiatrist. The fact is, that the majority of people receive anti-depressants, anti-anxiety medications, and stimulants for Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) from their primary care physician. A psychiatrist is an important part of any medication plan and should communicate regularly with the psychologist.

Where to turn? Several sources list outpatient providers of psychological and psychiatric services. Check with the provider to see if they accept insurance or for payment structures. Clink on one of the links below to find a licensed psychologist.;jsessionid=9C5178BA07C75DFB7B7266E65D58477F.mc1

For more information about mental health disorders see the website of the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) ( or the website of the Pennsylvania Psychological Association (

Or, for more information ASK ME!! You don't have to suffer alone....

Sunday, June 13, 2010

Counseling Corner Toolbox: Facts and strategies for suicide prevention

1-800-273-TALK (8255)

I just got the call.  A friend of a friend died this morning. Suicide.  Senseless, tragic, sad. Memories of my own friend who committed suicide 10 years ago flood back. I am transported back to those familiar emotions I experienced when I received the call: disbelief, sorrow, confusion, anger. Many ask, what could we have done? Should we have seen the signs?

One of my duties as a psychologist is to train people in suicide prevention and intervention. It is one of the hardest training courses that I do, but also the most important, in my opinion. If arming people with knowledge can help save a life, it is well worth it.

I would never sit here an try to tell you that you can absolutely, 100%,  prevent someone from committing suicide. What I can tell you is this: becoming educated about suicide and suicide prevention can go a long way to helping prevent someone from taking their own life. Are there any guarantees? No. But there might be ways to increase the chances that that person will get, and accept, help.

There are many factors that contribute to a person's decision to end their life. Some of these are: mental illness, drug and alcohol abuse, support system, coping skills, gender, and age. There are many, many more. These interact and can sometime result in the loss of hope. A common misconception is that a someone would commit suicide simply due to a breakup or a setback. These are triggers, but the underlying risk factors are already in place.

Here are some facts (2006 statistics):
*Suicide is the 11th leading cause of death in the United States (Homicide is ranked 15th).
*A person will take their own life every 15.8 minutes.
*11. 1 in 100,000 people have completed suicide.
*Females make a suicide attempt four times more frequently than males, however, the highest rate of completed suicide is in males.
*For every documented death from suicide, there are 25 attempts
*There are 6 survivors of every person who commits suicide (1 in every 65 Americans is estimated to be a suicide survivor - who has lost a loved on to suicide).

One of the goals of the suicide prevention course, called QPR (Question, Persuade, Refer), is to dispel certain myths about suicide. I will share these with you now:

Myth: No one can stop a suicide, it is inevitable.
Fact:  If people in a crisis get the help they need, and get through the crisis, they will probably never be suicidal again. They will most likely remember that they felt this way before and that there IS hope.

Myth: Confronting a person about suicide will only make them angry and increase the risk of suicide.
Fact:   Asking someone directly about suicidal intent lowers anxiety, opens up communication and lowers the risk of an impulsive act. We sometimes find that people actually want someone to talk to, but feel isolated and alone.

Myth:  Only trained experts can prevent suicide.
Fact:  Anybody, that means YOU, can intervene and try to prevent someone from committing suicide.

Myth:  Suicidal people keep their plans to themselves.
Fact: Most suicidal people communicate their intent sometime during the week preceding their attempt. Common signs can be giving away prized possessions, any sudden change in mood, talking about death and dying. If you see these signs, ask more questions.

Myth: Those who talk about suicide don’t do it.
Fact: People who talk about suicide may try, or even complete, an act of self-destruction (see previous Myth)

What should you do if you suspect someone considering/planning suicide? 
1. Ask the question.  Don't beat around the bush, be direct. "Are you thinking of committing suicide?" It is not an easy question to ask.  If you cannot ask, bring the person to someone who can. Another friend, a professional, a parent....someone. 
2. Next, take the person to a place where they can receive help: an emergency room, a trained professional. If they are in crisis, and refusing to get assistance, call for help immediately. Do not take this lightly.
If you or someone you know needs help, CALL 1-800-273-TALK

For more information, please contact the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention (, the QPR Institute, (, (  or contact me for more information. I perform training and education about suicide prevention and intervention.

If you or someone you know are in crisis, contact your local emergency services, by dialing 911.

Thursday, June 10, 2010

Pomp and Circumstance: The Psychology of Graduation

As Graduation season is upon us, I reflect back to my own high school graduation (SF Class of 1988!), more than 20 years ago. The world was much smaller back then. Simpler. The internet was in its infancy. Then the world exploded. Blogging, Facebook, texting, and cell phones. Back then, you still had to go to the library and use the card catalog to find books or to copy articles for that final paper. Now, the world is yours at the press of a button. (If you don't know what a card catalog is - ask your parents!)

Finishing high school is a bittersweet experience for most, the end of carefree days and summers off. Graduates face fears of the unknown as many go off to college, or the reality of the real workforce. Many view graduation as the end of something.

Commencement is so much more. The word itself, commence, means to begin. As much as the graduation is the end of high school, it is also the beginning of something, representing hope and all the future can bring. As you don your cap and gown, an age old tradition, you take part in a ritual that symbolizes a passage into adulthood.

I have had the good fortune of reconnecting with many of my friends and acquaintenaces from high school. It is amazing to see how everyone has changed and what they have accomplished. One classmate is working with the FBI, another has become a funeral director with one of the local funeral homes in our hometown, yet another has become a detective, and one classmate is in prison serving a 10 - 20 year prison sentence for manslaughter. It is almost The Breakfast Club in real life. Many have lost their lives, a stark reminder that it is not to be taken lightly. Most have children of their own now. We have one shot and need to make it count.

I guess the real lesson here is a message I try to pass to adolescents that I see for therapy - After high school, it is an entirely different world. In general, the cliques and groups dissipate, and the social hierarchy of high school seems less important. People are less mean and catty, after all, we are all freshmen again once we hit that college, University or trade school. As we move forward, commence, we take those sometimes brutally difficult lessons from high school, and try to become better humans. Without the peer pressure of high school friends, we try on new identities and allow our inner personality to shine. We gain confidence, competence and the knowledge that we need to become, well, whatever it is we want to pursue. I knew early on (Mr Aluise Psych/Soc class Junior year), that I wanted to become a psychologist. 20 years later I realized my own dream. I hope, that for the Class of 2010, they also find their own happiness. It's not as easy for them. They have new and difficult challenges to face. They have a much more complex and difficult world to take charge of...

For many facing commencement, unique challenges will be faced. First, new graduates may be leaving home for the first time. This can be anxiety producing for both the teen as well as their parents. Developing independence includes both the need to foster skills necessary to take care of oneslf (doing your own laundry, paying bills, cleaning your room without being told). I distinctly recall my father, EVERY time I saw him, saying "Did you check your oil?". In addition to the practical concerns, there are emotional adjustments to be made on both ends as well. Parents need to "let go" and the child needs to "step up". Emotionally, this can be a difficult and painful process.

When I see or speak with former classmates, many of them have changed. In fact, some are unrecognizable from the shy, awkward, skinny kids they once were. As my husband says "Life is the great equalizer". It can be ironic to realize that the most popular kids in high school may have been in their prime during that time, and many other "late bloomers" are still getting ready to shine.

One thing I know for sure: seeing the success of my own graduating class, I have hope for this generation of graduates.

Congratuations Class of 2010!!!

Spring-Ford Senior High School Class of '88 / Immaculata University Psy.D. Class of '07

Sunday, June 6, 2010

Let's Get Flyered Up! Why we need our team to win.

As I sit here at 7:30pm on Sunday evening, having just watched the Phillies lose to the Padres in the 10th, and anxiously waiting for Game 5 of the Flyers pursuit of the Stanley Cup, I am struck by the notion that I HAVE BECOME A PHILADELPHIA SPORTS FANATIC. There. I said it. I admit it.

I have always been a sports fan. After all, I WAS a high school cheerleader. (GO RAMS!). It started when I moved back to PA from California in 2001, and began to closely follow the Eagles. I bleed green. Over the last several years, the green has also been mixed with Red, and, now Orange. There have been untold Sunday afternoons, when our windows are open, that the shouts, cheers, and groans of the Eagles fans on my street can be heard. We are ONE.

Tonight, as I sit here in my living room, along with untold numbers of the other Philly faithful, waiting for the game, I begin to feel that familiar knot in my stomach, and many begin their rituals that I have been reading about, watching the game in a certain bar or pub, wearing that "lucky" shirt, heck, even the commentators were talking about wearing their orange ties. We are hungry for that Cup. We NEED that Cup.

But why is it that we care so much? After all, the Flyers winning or losing the Stanley Cup isn't a direct reflection on us. It doesn't have anything to do with our worth as a person or how we feel about ourselves. Or does it?

In psychology, there is a name for this. It is called "Basking in Reflected Glory". This was best seen in one study where researchers measured the number of people wearing their team's apparel on a Monday morning following a game. They found that 63% wore their team's "colors" the day after a win. After a loss, it fell to 44%. "By wearing a sports team uniform, attending their games, or watching them on television, the team's successes becomes the fan's successes, and as a result, wins on the field translate into bolstered self-esteem" according to Allen R. McConnell, Ph.D. In addition to wearing their team's apparel, the researchers also found that fans tend to personalize the wins and losses. You frequently hear comments such as "WE played great yesterday!", "We really need a new quarterback" (Philly gets their wish this year!), and "We'll get em next time!".

As we approach game time, let's try to keep it in perspective. Don't drink too much, make sure you take lots of deep breaths, and remember that our team wants it as much as we do. Philly is a die-hard sports town. No doubt about it. We would love nothing more than another parade. Philly fans are like no other, whether you are in the sky box or the 700 level. As you sit through what will inevitably be a nailbiter, be sure that you remember that this is one game, it IS a game (even though we REALLY need to win), and that you still need to tuck your kids in, take out the dog, and get up for work. Tomorrow is another day. But wouldn't it be a great day if we win?


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