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Divorce. Addiction. Chronic Illness. Jail. These traumas occur in American life at all societal levels, and they affect the lives of both adults and children every day. When kids are affected by traumatic events, they bring the effects of that trauma with them to school. Depression, anxiety and trauma-induced behavioral challenges impact their ability to learn and their relationships with teachers and peers.

Educational Psychology alumnus Elizabeth Minne, Ph.D. ’06, is helping to provide an outlet for students to deal with some of these issues for Austin Independent School District (AISD) students through on-campus school mental health centers. Vida Clinic, which was founded by Minne, has partnered with AISD to provide on-campus mental health centers with licensed counselors.

Elizabeth Minne

Initially implemented at Crockett High School, mental health services have expanded to 18 middle and high schools, and 22 elementary schools. These schools serve students who live in multilingual neighborhoods, many of which have a higher proportion of crime and a lack of transportation. These factors can lead to issues such as disruptive behavior or chronic absenteeism.

The stress that students experience can lead to disruptive behavior in and out of class that can, in turn, lead to suspensions or expulsions. Meeting with a counselor provides a way for students to work through their issues, without relying on punitive measures that help fuel the school-to-prison pipeline.

Vida Clinic helps fill a void that school counselors typically cannot take on. Most school counselors are required to spend the majority of their time supporting students academically—making sure students are earning their school credits and are on track to graduate. The job of Vida Clinic’s clinical therapists is to support student mental health. When counselors encounter students who are struggling emotionally, they can refer students to the on-site clinic for mental health services. Students do not have to travel and miss minimal class time. This also means that parents or guardians do not have to take time off of work to take children to appointments.

A case study from the 2016-2017 school year at Crockett High School offers support that these services benefit the students who participate. Compared to a control group, students in the treatment group exhibited increased attendance, fewer expulsions, and higher academic performance.

Teachers and parents can be involved in a variety of ways, says Minne. “They can participate in individual therapy services for themselves. They can take part in individual consultation services in order to develop trauma-informed strategies for responding to challenging student behaviors. They can participate in small group workshops to develop skills and knowledge of mental health concepts. Or they can attend campus-wide presentations for initial learning of mental health concepts, such as Trauma-Informed Care.”

The on-campus clinics also help destigmatize mental health. When appropriate, therapists can also work with the student’s parents or teachers, taking a holistic approach to mental health.

Providing teachers with resources to deal with disruptive behavior can also help reduce teacher stress. “Teachers can sometimes take disruptive behavior from students personally, when many times the disruptive behavior has less to do with the teacher and more to do with stress or mental health issues the student is facing,” says Christopher McCarthy, a professor in the Department of Educational Psychology at the University of Texas at Austin’s College of Education.

McCarthy and his graduate students have collaborated with Minne for several years to help teachers develop coping resources for classroom stress. They also help improve teachers’ occupational health and allow them to better recognize when students might be experiencing mental health concerns.

Says Minne, “We find that when we have mental health professionals on campuses who are able to provide therapeutic support for everyone, both the adults and the students, the climate begins to shift to one that is more open to talking about mental health. It becomes easier for everyone to acknowledge that mental health is something that we all need to pay attention to. As one teacher told me, ‘It takes a village, we are all in this together.’”

 

A mother and daughter walking through a city

The HIV/AIDS epidemic that started in the 1980s devastated populations around the world, reaching its peak in 2005. International awareness and research efforts have made strides to combat HIV, but the battle is far from over.

The rate of new HIV infections has significantly decreased from 130,400 new infections in 1985 to 39,393 new infections in 2015. While this is good news, there are still populations that are considered high risk for contracting HIV. Among these are low-income Black and Latina women who may not have sufficient resources to protect themselves from HIV infection.

A momentous development in the prevention of the spread of HIV has been the PrEP (Pre-Exposure Prophylaxis) prevention, a pill that can reduce the chance of contracting HIV by up to 99 percent. Although this medication has been available since 2012, access and awareness are still an issue.Photo of Liesl Nydegger

Liesl Nydegger, an assistant professor in the Department of Kinesiology and Health Education, is working with local communities in Austin to help find effective interventions for Black and Latina women in high-risk environments for sexually transmitted infections (STIs) and HIV.

“There are obstacles such as housing, transportation, relationships, poverty, gentrification, and structural barriers that make it hard for women to focus on their sexual health,” says Nydegger. “If we can help with basic needs, that would decrease issues such as substance abuse or living with an abusive partner. These supports create positive effects that can trickle down into overall health improvements.”

Nydegger’s study involves a partnership with Austin’s local SafePlace, a shelter for people affected by domestic violence or sexual assault. By interviewing these individuals over three months, she will be able to find longitudinal stresses that contribute to poor health. This research phase will help to inform structural interventions that can be proposed to improve health in these groups. Nydegger is conducting this study alongside Kasey Claborn, an assistant professor in the Dell Medical School’s Department of Psychiatry.

Some of the women in the high-risk group that Nydegger studies have been survivors of childhood sexual abuse, which can have psychological impacts that make it hard for them to have healthy sexual relationships. These include relationships in which the woman was under 16 years old, and more than five years younger than her partner. The age difference creates a power differential that can be carried into adulthood, making it hard for women to negotiate condom use with their current partners.

Nydegger conducted similar interviews with women in Milwaukee and found that there was little awareness for options such as PrEP. “Although women were aware that STIs were prevalent in their community, they did not consider themselves as high-risk for HIV infection. Even more concerning, three of the four women interviewed reported that their doctors were unaware of PrEP,” says Nydegger.

“Advertisements and awareness campaigns for the PrEP option do exist, but they are most often targeted towards men who have sex with men. This group is considered higher-risk for contracting HIV than women, but women have certain vulnerabilities that make it difficult for them to protect themselves from infection.

Women who are in abusive or coercive relationships often do not have the option to negotiate condom use with their partners, which leaves them vulnerable to infection,” says Nydegger. “Options such as PrEP offer a discreet way for women to protect themselves.”

 

The winter Olympics may have wrapped up earlier this year, but charges of doping still reverberate.

With all of the scandals surrounding this year’s Winter Olympics, it’s hard to ignore the importance of ethics in sports. Between Russia being barred from the Olympics for doping and former U.S. gymnastics doctor Larry Nassar being sentenced for sexual abuse, news headlines have been rife with controversy.

But controversy and ethics in sports is not new.

Society tends to put professional athletes on a pedestal – casting them as idols and role models. In reality, professional sports can serve more as a mirror to society, but are not always held to the same standards. Tolga Ozyurtcu, a clinical assistant professor in the Department of Kinesiology and Health Education, says “In times like these, it is important to uphold ethical principles and not let a person’s reputation or fame downplay their actions. Although sports have numerous positive benefits, people should not ignore the bad when celebrating the good.”

Ozyurtcu addresses issues like these in his teaching. He cites many sports events and controversies of the past that still resonate with us today, such as:

He also teaches a course, Historical and Ethical Issues in Physical Culture and Sports, that helps undergraduate kinesiology and health education students consider these topics. It’s a course with value that extends beyond the realm of athletics. “We focus on the ethical decision-making process: how do we identify an issue as a matter of ethics, examine it, and find the courage to take action,” says Ozyurtcu.

His course uses historical events to examine ethical issues, and current events also shape much of the class discussion. The PyeongChang Winter Olympics, for example, provoked ethical conversations around:

  • competing for a nation you don’t reside in or have much connection to,
  • allowing children to try risky sports, such as luge or skeleton,
  • and gold-medalist Shaun White’s sexual harassment allegations.

Says Ozyurtcu, who welcomes anyone to contact him to attend one of his lectures, “These examples allow students to develop a process of reasoning that, hopefully, should translate into their careers and lives beyond the Forty Acres.”

Tolga Ozyurtcu instructing a class

Tolga Ozyurtcu instructing a class

Though the discussions in Ozyurtcu’s classes focus on sports and ethics, the concepts can be applied to other aspects of life. Ozyurtcu, therefore, tries to highlight the moral dilemmas that arise from justifying less than exemplary behavior in the pursuit of competitive success.

“An example I often use in class is based on youth sports, which we tend to justify because of non-sports benefits like discipline, integrity, teamwork, and leadership.  However, when we turn around and coach kids to do something such as deceiving a referee, we completely undermine our justifications. This may seem like a minor indiscretion, but the lessons we learn as children have outsized legacies in our lives,” says Ozyurtcu.

Although students may not have to deal with issues as grave as those that plagued the Winter Games, studying ethics can help them develop a process of reasoning that extends beyond their time in school.

Graduation Cap and career options

Graphics by freepik.com

College is a time when many people engage in the exploration, self-discovery, and knowledge building that will shape who they are and what they will achieve in their future. During these few years, students are often learning for the first time where their passions lie.

Choosing a major that aligns with their interests early in their college career can have significant positive impacts on students’ engagement in the coursework and career preparedness. It can also decrease the amount of time that students take to earn their degree, which helps lower their student debt and increases their overall earning potential and career trajectory. These are some of the reasons The University of Texas at Austin has made graduating within four years one of its top priorities for undergraduates.

But deciding on a career early within the college journey can be a bit like building a road while walking on it. Students may not have the time or support to translate their interests into a viable career option.

Head shot of and portrait of Dr. Chris McCarthy in the Department of Educational Psychology. My research focuses on three distinct lines of inquiry in stress and coping: (a) wellness and health psychology, (b) identification of psychological resources that can help prevent stress, and (c) extending basic research on stress and coping to educational settings, particularly in understanding the stress that educators and counselors experience.

Christopher McCarthy

One way to help ensure a speedy graduation rate is to have a well-thought out career plan, says Christopher McCarthy, a professor in the Department of Educational Psychology. McCarthy teaches Introduction to Career Planning, a course that helps students map their future and get the most out of their degree. In the class, McCarthy walks students through the process, looking at the lifespan of a career, as opposed to simply focusing on finding a job out of college.

In addition to looking at the potential career’s lifespan, McCarthy emphasizes the importance of social resourcefulness as a way to manage stress throughout a career. “It’s essential that students to learn how to successfully cope with stress early on. Students need to be comfortable asking for feedback, talking about stress, and managing the natural loss/gain of jobs,” says McCarthy.

The class also incorporates social aspects into the process. Students evaluate how attributes such as their personality, values, ethnicity, and gender can help shape their career outcome. This process can help them narrow their options when choosing a major, which can often be overwhelming at larger universities.

McCarthy emphasizes two points to undergraduates who may be unsure about their career path:

  1. Find ways to test out aspects of a career to see what type of work you like to do. This could be anything from finding out if you like working indoors or outdoors, your preferred work-life balance, or if you would like to work for a nonprofit or private company. Even if you’re not doing the type of work you want, you can gauge how you might like the environment you will be working in.
  2. Explore ways to be a part of a professional community. Building connections within your field can be one of the most important steps in your career development. Interacting with people who are passionate about their work and having organic conversations with them can lead to opportunities that you may not have known existed.

Introduction to Career Planning is open to all undergraduates at Texas. Currently, students from several majors and years are enrolled in the course. The course is a hybrid course, consisting of in-person and interactive online assignments.