Feature

When University of Hawaii Assistant Professor Thao N. Le, PhD, MPH, sought to bring mindfulness techniques to three Native American tribes of Lake County, Mont., she hit on an approach that the tribes quickly embraced. "They said that mindfulness is what they've been doing for centuries, and that this project will help to restore their traditional ways and practices," she says.

Many young members of these tribes—the Confederated Salish, Kootenai and Pend d'Oreille—are disconnected from their cultural roots and suffer from disproportionately high rates of suicide and other forms of violence, Le says.

Now, thanks to a $20,000 Visionary Grant from the American Psychological Foundation, and support from the Colorado Injury Control Research Center, Le is implementing and pilot testing a translated version of the Mind Body Awareness Project—a California-based mindfulness curriculum geared to at-risk youth—with young members of the tribes. Working with her colleague, Judy Gobert, and other tribe members, she is weaving cultural metaphors, stories and other activities into the program in ways the young people can relate to. Le plans to bring in facilitators from the Mind Body Awareness program to train members of the tribe to eventually take it over.

"My goal is for this program to become completely sustainable," she says. 

Le is one of five psychologists who won the 2011 APF Visionary Grants. Each year APF grants up to $20,000 to support innovative psychological solutions to pressing human problems including violence, stigma and prejudice, natural and manmade disasters and health conditions. A related APF grant, the Drs. Raymond A. And Rosalee G. Weiss Research and Program Innovation Fund Grant, provides $5,000 annually in these same topic areas.

"The recipients of these grants are innovators who are using the scientific rigor of psychology to solve some of society's thorniest issues," says APF Executive Director Elisabeth Straus.

Two other grantees are also examining interventions for troubled youth. Georgetown University Associate Professor Rachel Barr, PhD, will use a $4,354 Visionary Grant and a $5,000 Drs. Raymond A. and Rosalee G. Weiss Research and Program Innovation Fund Grant to extend a study she is conducting with Carole Shauffer, JD, of the Youth Law Center, that seeks to nurture attachments between incarcerated teen parents and their children.

"Teen parents in the juvenile justice system and their children are at risk for a range of poor outcomes, including in their relationships with one another," says Barr. "This intervention, if effective, could help build them stronger early attachments that may benefit their future lives in many ways."

Called the Baby Elmo Project, the intervention offers weekly parent-training sessions delivered by detention facility staff; video clips from a video series called "Sesame Beginnings," where characters from the television show "Sesame Street" demonstrate positive interactions among parents and very young children; and weekly parent-child visits. Research shows the protocol improves bonds between these parents and their 1- to 3-year-old children. Now, the grant will allow them to test its effectiveness with children younger than 1, says Barr.

Meanwhile, Wake Forest University Assistant Professor Lisa Kiang, PhD, is using her $17,117 Visionary grant to examine how prejudice may affect youth on a physiological level—an area that's received little research attention to date. In her study, African-American, Asian-American and Latino youth will view still images that denote overt and subtle discrimination, racial acceptance, or a neutral stance—a picture of a sign explicitly derogating a group, a store clerk seemingly eyeing a person of color with suspicion, or a face with a neutral expression, for example, while at the same time being presented with a startling noise. Sensors will capture eye blinks as well as physiologic measures of stress such as skin conductance and heart rate.

Kiang hopes the findings will broaden our understanding of prejudice's impact. "Knowing how young adults automatically and physiologically respond to discrimination could provide a more complete picture of how race affects individuals' lives, and ultimately lead to more concrete and practical interventions for handling and overcoming such experiences," she says.

The other two Visionary grants will look at how ethnopolitical violence affects people and consider how that information can be used to help people cope in the aftermath of such trauma.

Clark University Assistant Professor Johanna Ray Vollhardt, PhD, will use her $18,501 award to expand research on victim groups' reactions to mass violence. She has found that victimized group members develop either an "exclusive" victim consciousness—a focus on the uniqueness of their own group's suffering—or an "inclusive" victim consciousness—in which they perceive similarities among their experiences and those of other groups. These mindsets, she posits, can lead to very different outcomes, ranging from cycles of violence and revenge to more prosocial attitudes and actions, such as supporting international aid to victims of war and genocide. The grant will enable her to validate a measure of these cognitions among four diverse groups, explore factors that shape these mindsets, and gather ideas for future research through focus group interviews and surveys. 

In a related vein, E. Mark Cummings, PhD, a professor at Notre Dame University, received $16,500 from APF to develop and test culturally sensitive instruments that will shed light on the relationship between intergroup tension and adolescent mental health outcomes among Serbian and Croatian youth in Vukovar, a divided city in Croatia. The effort is part of a larger study he is conducting with Notre Dame colleagues Christine Merrilees, PhD, and Laura Taylor and colleagues at the University of Zagreb. They seek to understand the psychosocial factors that underlie child, family and community behavior in a conflict setting—how young people's emotional insecurity about community or ethnic social identity might lead to aggression and delinquency, for instance.

They seek to understand the psychosocial factors that underlie child, family and community behaviors.

Previous efforts to restore civil societies following political violence have focused largely on agreements between political leaders, Cummings says. By enabling his team to study the reactions of communities and average citizens, the APF grant "may allow us to better understand the obstacles to achieving civil societies and to create more informed and effective interventions," he says.


Tori DeAngelis is a writer in Syracuse, N.Y.

The next deadline for the Visionary and Drs. Raymond A. and Rosalee G. Weiss Research and Program Innovation Fund Grants is March 15.