In Brief

  • Rates of mental illness among college students are rising, according to research by John Guthman, PhD, a clinical psychologist at Hofstra University. He and colleagues examined counseling records from 3,256 college students who were screened for mental disorders, suicidal thoughts and self-injurious behavior between 1997 and 2009. The researchers found that 96 percent of students who sought counseling in 2009 were diagnosed with a mental disorder, compared with 93 percent in 1998. Also, the percentage of students with moderate to severe depression went up from 34 percent to 41 percent. These upticks might be due to more students entering college with pre-existing mental health problems, Guthman said.
  • A simple online intervention could help stave off depression, according to research by Acacia Parks, PhD, a psychology professor at Reed College. After six weeks of online exercises designed to evoke pleasure, engagement and meaning, such as writing to a loved one, 661 mildly depressed self-help seekers reported a significant decrease in their depression for the following year. “Online interventions such as this one may be a potential solution to a major public health issue, and can help decrease the prevalence of one of the most burdensome diseases in the United States,” Parks said.
  • Growing up in poverty and under stress is linked to heightened reactivity to stress in adulthood, which can lead to heart disease, according to research by Karen A. Matthews, PhD, of the University of Pittsburgh. Matthews tested 212 teenagers for sensitivity to stress and early signs of heart disease, such as artery thickening, over the course of three years. Teens from lower-income households tended to have higher blood pressure and progressively thicker arteries as the study went on, compared with teens living in middle-class households. Another study by Matthews found that children from low-income families interpreted ambiguous social situations as threatening more often than children from a high socioeconomic status.
  • REM sleep helps the brain perform associative memory and problem-solving tasks, according to research by Sara C. Mednick, PhD, of the University of California, San Diego. Mednick tested people’s abilities to find the connection among three loosely associated words, such as “cookie,” “heart” and “sixteen.” Participants were tested in the morning, then took a nap wherein some entered a REM cycle and some did not. Those who got REM sleep were better able to find the connecting word — “sweet” — than those who didn’t, Mednick said. It seems that REM sleep is important to the brain’s ability to coalesce abstract information, she said.
  • Dancers really do lose themselves in the movement, according to research by psychologist Paula Thomson, PsyD, and kinesiologist S. Victoria Jaque, PhD, at California State University, Northridge. They analyzed psychological and physiological traits of 42 elite and 34 pre-professional dancers before and after a dance performance. Compared with non-dancers after dancing, the participants reported significantly high levels of “dispositional flow,” or the general ability to get a “good vibe” from an activity, as well as “state flow,” the ability to get lost in a specific activity. Physiological measurements of heart rate while dancing reflected this finding, the researchers said.
  • When discussing their lives, teenage Palestinian and Jewish citizens of Israel tell similar stories of redemption in which they successfully surmount challenges and grow as a result, according to a study by Phillip Hammack, PhD, a psychology professor at the University of California, Santa Cruz. Disenfranchised Palestinian Israeli teens, such as those living in the West Bank, are far more likely to tell stories that end in sadness and defeat. “The Israeli national narrative is one of redemption,” says Hammack, “so it makes sense that teens reflect this in their personal stories.”
  • Treating children for test anxiety can reduce levels of post-traumatic stress disorder, finds research by psychologists Leslie K. Taylor, PhD, Brandon Scott, PhD, and Carl Weems, PhD, of the University of New Orleans. The researchers gave the Test Anxiety Screening Scale to 242 fourth- through eighth-graders who had been exposed to Hurricane Katrina and its aftermath. Thirty children who had elevated levels of test anxiety completed a test anxiety reduction intervention that included relaxation training combined with gradual exposure to anxiety-provoking test-related stimuli. After the intervention, students showed a significant decrease in their level of test anxiety, as well as an increase in their grade point average. Furthermore, change in the test anxiety symptoms appeared to predict a change in symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder, she said.
  • Today’s superheroes set a worse example for boys than did superhero icons of the past, said presenters at a symposium on boyhood and masculinity at APA’s Annual Convention. In the past, said Sharon Lamb, PhD, a professor of mental health at the University of Massachusetts–Boston, superheroes were real people with real problems once the costumes came off. Today’s heroes keep up their tough-guy swagger full-time, she said. To see what effect this has had, Lamb surveyed boys ages 4 to 18, asking about the types of media they consumed and how they identified with men in those stories. She found that many identify with one of two narrow images of masculinity: either the tough, “player” superhero type, or the “slacker” who wisecracks and doesn’t take anything seriously. These men in the media today offer a very limiting picture of masculinity, she said.
  • The spark of a new relationship fuels creativity while a plodding, passionless one saps it, suggests research by Kelly Campbell, PhD, James C. Kaufman, PhD, and Jacinta Gau, PhD, at California State University, San Bernadino. The researchers surveyed 1,400 people, mostly heterosexual women around age 25, about the passion, commitment and intimacy in their relationships. They also asked them to rate their own creativity. Participants who were in short-term relationships reported that they were more creative than those in long-term relationships did, but researchers found that this association could largely be explained by the level of passion reported in those relationships. People in passionate long-term relationships were just as creative as those in new relationships, researchers said.

—M. Price