Experts recommend a shift in national priorities to prevent mental disorders among youth

February 2, 2017

Growing up is hard enough, even under ideal circumstances. But when there is ongoing conflict or chaos in homes or communities, or when parents are mentally ill, growing up can feel almost impossible. As a result of such pressures, thousands of today’s children suffer serious psychological and psychiatric difficulties ranging from depression to substance abuse, which not only impede their own growth and development but also come at great cost to society.

However, there are a variety of tried and true intervention programs in place that could be used to help these children thrive in their environment, and there are programs to help guide adults in how to properly nurture and support their children’s growth, even under conditions of high stress. These programs just need to be employed more widely, adhering to what science has taught us about the major processes that should be targeted, and procedures for doing so. “We do know what helps kids and what hurts them, and how best to intervene,” said ASU psychology professor Suniya Luthar, who co-edited a special section on such programs in the current issue of Child Development. Download Full Image

That is the consensus of 12 groups of researchers with articles in the early, online issue of Child Development that make up a “Special Section on Developmental Research and Translational Science: Evidence-based Interventions for At-risk Youth and Families.” The collection of articles was compiled and edited by Arizona State University Foundation Professor Suniya Luthar and ASU Regents Professor Nancy Eisenberg, both of the psychology department. All contributors to the special section outline what should be done to curtail the unabated high levels of disturbance among today’s youth.

Summarizing the articles, Luthar said, “There are three top priorities in terms of what we should be targeting. Foremost is the need to provide ongoing social support for mothers, who usually are the primary caregivers of these children. This makes good sense. Children spend the bulk of their waking hours with their primary parents, and any parent who is psychologically depleted herself/himself cannot sustain ‘good parenting’ across time.”

“Thus, our first line of action must be to ensure that the primary caregivers are themselves tended, with ongoing support in their everyday lives,” she said.

A secondary goal is to minimize harsh, insensitive parenting while simultaneously enhancing nurturing, loving interactions.

“We need to do all we can to curtail maltreatment because chronic abuse has multiple, serious repercussions for children that become hard to reverse,” Luthar explained. “We must help vulnerable parents move away from responding to children’s behaviors with harshness or anger, instead, responding with sensitivity and nurturance as much as they are able.”

Luthar said maltreating parents, many of whom grew up with abuse, must be helped to develop a “new way of being,” where they see the world not as inevitably hostile and destructive to themselves, but rather one that has support, empathy and concern for their welfare. 

“Gaining some equanimity of spirit is essential for them to be able to sustain ‘good parenting behaviors,’” she said. “As parents themselves come to feel cared for and tended, they become much better able to offer this kind of gentle (and firm) care to their children.”      

A third theme is promoting emotional regulation among parents and children, as well as among teachers and students in school settings, fostering strategies to manage difficult emotions such as anger and fearfulness.

ASU Regents Professor

Nancy Eisenberg

“When either parent or child tend to fly off the handle, each one negatively affects the other,” explained ASU’s Eisenberg. “It is important to get both generations to develop self-regulation skills to use at times when they experience difficult emotions such as anger. In some instances children who are in high self-regulation are buffered, at least to some degree, from the negative effects of some environmental or familial stressors.”

Each group of researchers in the special section recommends that science-based intervention programs that are in place could go a long way to ameliorating the situation.

“We do know what helps kids and what hurts them, and how best to intervene,” Luthar said. “The problem is that at a national level we have not, in parallel, directed resources toward taking these evidence-based interventions to large scale. This must change. If we are to truly help today’s vulnerable children and families, there has to be greater commitment of resources to ensure that promising programs are readily accessible to those most in need, and that these programs are implemented with high quality and fidelity to treatment procedures.”

To that end, Luthar and Eisenberg suggest that the National Institutes of Health review its current funding practices with an eye towards shifting from what is now an overwhelming emphasis on biological-science-based research toward more support of behavior-based programs that change toxic environmental influences. As Eisenberg noted, even though biology plays an important role in children’s self-regulation and resilience, toxic environments can harm most children and are factors that are much easier to address than are biological factors.

“Too many children continue to suffer greatly despite all we have learned about resilience and prevention,” Luthar said. “Behavioral scientists know how to ease this in prevention programs, and we urgently need earmarking of resources and funds to take these promising, empirically based programs to large scale. We hope that the clear, feasible and cost effective recommendations compiled here will spur more concerted programming to maximize the well-being of vulnerable kids and their families.”

Director, Media Relations and Strategic Communications


Thunderbird and the American Express Leadership Academy: Teaching leadership, one NGO at a time

February 2, 2017

Editor's Note: From May 8-13, 2016, Thunderbird and American Express hosted their annual American Express Leadership Academy at Thunderbird’s Glendale, Arizona main campus. The 30 program participants from 10 different non-profit/non-governmental organizations represented 6 different countries: Kenya, Malawi, Palestine, People’s Republic of China, Uganda and the United States. Forty percent of the participants were from outside the U.S.

Thunderbird’s annual program, launched in 2009 through a partnership with American Express, has now served over 200 managers from nearly 70 organizations. Its goal is to help emerging leaders become more effective leaders for further impact on the NGO’s goals and missions. Thunderbird/American Express Leadership Academy Download Full Image

“One of the philanthropic goals of American Express is to focus on the development of social sector leaders,” said Thunderbird Professor Mary Teagarden, the Academy’s academic director. “These participants are on their way to positions of senior leadership.”

This is the first in a series of articles highlighting how three organizations from the 2016 Academy experienced its value and impact.

When you speak with Abaas Mpindi, you immediately notice his energy and the infectious enthusiasm in his voice. He exudes the confidence many young entrepreneurs have of seeming to know exactly what he wants in life. But if you dig a little deeper, you will find someone who not only knows what he wants, but who also seeks to help others find their path, as well.

Abaas is a program manager with the Global Health Corps’ Ugandan operations. A New York-based non-profit organization founded in 2009, GHC develops global health leaders by recruiting early-to-mid-career professionals from around the world and pairing them with partner organizations in Malawi, Rwanda, Uganda, the United States, and Zambia. 

As a program manager, Abaas coordinates the program’s alumni in the region, helps with professional development of the current Global Health Corps Fellows and generally helps the organization promote health equality. Since its founding, Global Health Corps has supported over 700 alumni fellows, 60 of whom are from Uganda.

Abaas was selected along with two other Global Health Corps colleagues, Isabel Kumwembe from Malawi and Carrie Rubury from the New York office, to attend the 2016 American Express Leadership Academy at Thunderbird School of Global Management in Glendale, Arizona. The weeklong program that also includes two post-program individual coaching sessions focuses on building the personal, business and leadership skills needed to run a successful nonprofit organization.

When asked about his experience at the Leadership Academy, Abaas doesn’t hesitate in his answer: “Life changing.”

“When I came to Thunderbird for the Leadership Academy, I had no idea what to expect. Arizona is nothing like Uganda physically. But Thunderbird, that’s a different story. At GHC, it’s like a family. We have Fellows from all over the world paired with local health practitioners. With students and faculty from around the globe, Thunderbird is like a United Nations in the middle of the desert.”

One of the benefits of attending the Leadership Academy is for the organizations’ attendees to solve a project that can help their organization improve in some fashion, using the faculty and fellow attendees as resources.

“I was surprised at the diversity in the overall group,” he said. “People from Palestine, Kenya, United States, and Uganda. We all had a single purpose — to solve a problem facing our respective organizations, but it was so educational to learn how people from other cultures see and hear things differently. It really opened my eyes to try and approach challenges in a different fashion.”

The project Abaas and his team chose was how to better engage the Global Health Corps Fellows in participating in the organization’s annual reports. The fellows looked at the reports as an obligation instead of an opportunity, meaning the reports weren’t a priority.

Abaas’s team looked at the disconnect between the programming and the organization, and decided to restructure the reports as a method of accountability for Global Health Corps, not just an obligation. Understanding what is happening with the Fellows can hold the organization accountable for the program, but Global Health Corps needs to know and understand what’s happening. The fellows’ reports do just that.

“One way we looked at restructuring was to make the reports engaging, so the Fellows would want to participate. Instead of insisting on boring PowerPoint slides, we asked for photos and videos of their experiences,” Abaas said.

“Another thing we did was take the approach that Simon Sinek wrote about in his book, Start with Why. We ask our Fellows about their ‘why’: Why are they doing this work? What is their personal mission? Why do they care?”

His experience with the Leadership Academy at Thunderbird extends beyond his employment with Global Health Corps. Abaas said his experience at the Leadership Academy prompted him to start a non-profit organization, the Media Challenge Initiative. Extending his involvement with his background in journalism, the initiative helps train the next generation of journalists through monthly workshops on goal setting, radio and TV presentation and production, online journalism and now solutions journalism to promote the idea that journalists have to become part of solutions dialogue.

“Uganda has some of the highest youth unemployment rates due to the huge gap between graduate skills and market requirements and [also] the absence of practical facilities in universities. We set up a Media Academy with a make-shift TV and radio training studio, as well as training space for around 20-25 students,” he said.  Some of the media equipment was donated by a local Scottsdale photographer, Mr. Reg Boynton-Lee from The Happy Snapper Ltd.

“Because of Thunderbird’s American Express Leadership Academy, my entire way of thinking about challenges has changed. My teammates Isabel and Carrie and I had a life-changing experience. I am the manager I am today because of the program. I cannot recommend it enough.”

Read more about Thunderbird's American Express Leadership Academy.

Manager, marketing and communications, Thunderbird School of Global Management