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Photo: Thomas Armour Youth Ballet
An unusual ballet company in Miami provides ballet, reading, math and etiquette classes along with access to mental health professionals as needed.

In the fall, my younger granddaughter will start ballet lessons in Rhode Island. “I’m going to be on the stage,” she announced to my neighbor. I’m not sure what, at age 4, ballet classes mean to her, but they have a mighty big aura.

In Miami, an unusual ballet company has been growing an even bigger aura. Thomas Armour Youth Ballet offers dance lessons, yes, but as I learned from this Miami Herald article by Rodolfo Roman, its goals extend well beyond dance.

“When sports journalist Claudia Chang Trejos faced a difficult period in her life, an after-school ballet program helped her overcome obstacles.

“Now, her daughter, Glades Middle School student Sophia Chang Trejos, 14, is following her mother, attending the after-school program at the Thomas Armour Youth Ballet in South Miami.

“The program provides ballet, reading, math and etiquette classes along with access to mental health professionals [and] delivers professionally taught dance classes in multiple genres, at little or no cost to 500 students ages 5-11.

” ‘When she started, I was going through a nasty divorce,’ Claudia said. ‘We were broke. I had no one to help me out with Sophia, so this was a place she could go to, and go with her peers. I went to work and I had a peace of mind.’ …

“ ‘Ballet is not for everybody,’ said Sophia, who credits the program with her getting into the New World School of Arts, the Miami-Dade arts magnet high school, where she will start in the fall.

“ ‘You can start when you are 4 and love it, but when you grow, the technique gets harder and that’s when people quit. What I like about ballet is it’s a different way to train a person. I like the music and the way people are when you are dancing. It is like a movie.’ …

“Director Ruth Wiesen said the program’s goal is to be a vehicle of success.

“ ‘Every now and then, I step back and I am shocked we are able to see these kids succeed and coming back to Miami,’ she said. ‘That is the biggest thrill. They come back, settle down and act like role models.’ …

“No matter what her future holds, Sophia said the program will always have a place in her heart.

“ ‘I plan on coming back when I am older, and teach classes to give back,’ she said.”

More at the Miami Herald, here.

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Photo: Pearl Mak/NPR
Girard Children’s Community Garden in Washington, D.C. was created on a vacant lot and is now a thriving community space for neighborhood kids.

Most of us know that spending time in nature makes us feel good, but many city children have few opportunities to find that out for themselves. A chain of community gardens in Washington, DC, provides anecdotal evidence that green space reduces stress, and now a controlled Philadelphia study gives more scientific proof that that is exactly what’s going on.

Rhitu Chatterjee reports at National Public Radio, “Growing up in Washington, D.C.’s Columbia Heights neighborhood, Rebecca Lemos-Otero says her first experience with nature came in her late teens when her mother started a community garden.

” ‘I was really surprised and quickly fell in love,’ she recalls. The garden was peaceful, and a ‘respite’ from the neighborhood, which had high crime rates, abandoned lots and buildings, she says.

“Inspired by that experience, years later, Lemos-Otero, 39, started City Blossoms, a local nonprofit that has about 15 children-focused community green spaces across Washington, D.C. She wanted to give kids from minority and low-income communities easy access to some greenery. …

” ‘Having access to a bit of nature, having a tree to read under, or, having a safe space like one of our gardens, definitely makes a huge difference on their stress levels,’ says Lemos-Otero. ‘The feedback that we’ve gotten from a lot of young people is that it makes them feel a little lighter.’

“Now a group of researchers from Philadelphia has published research that supports her experience. The study, published Friday in JAMA Network Open, found that having access to even small green spaces can reduce symptoms of depression for people who live near them, especially in low-income neighborhoods.

“Previous research has shown that green spaces are associated with better mental health, but this study is ‘innovative,’ says Rachel Morello-Frosch, a professor at the department of environmental science, policy and management at the University of California, Berkeley, who wasn’t involved in the research.

” ‘To my knowledge, this is the first intervention to test — like you would in a drug trial — by randomly allocating a treatment to see what you see,’ adds Morello-Frosch. Most previous studies to look into this have been mostly observational.

“Philadelphia was a good laboratory for exploring the impact of green space on mental health because it has many abandoned buildings and vacant lots, often cluttered with trash, says Eugenia South, an assistant professor at the Perelman School of Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania and an author of the study. …

“South and her colleagues wanted to see if the simple task of cleaning and greening these empty lots could have an impact on residents’ mental health and well-being. So, they randomly selected 541 vacant lots and divided them into three groups. They collaborated with the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society for the cleanup work.

“The lots in one group were left untouched — this was the control group. The Pennsylvania Horticultural Society cleaned up the lots in a second group, removing the trash. And for a third group, they cleaned up the trash and existing vegetation, and planted new grass and trees. The researchers called this third set the ‘vacant lot greening’ intervention.”

You can read what happened at National Public Radio, here.

Photo: Pearl Mak/NPR
Girard Children’s Community Garden will be celebrating 10 years this year. The garden signs are in both English and Spanish.

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As in other cities nationwide, relations between communities and police are often tense in Boston, but here is a small effort that focuses on reducing arrests and getting help for people who are troubled.

Evan Allen writes at the Boston Globe, “When Officers Michael Sullivan and Jeff Driscoll and senior crisis clinician Ben Linsky head out on their beat in Mattapan, they seek out the most vulnerable citizens: the drug-addicted, the homeless, and the mentally ill. Theirs is the only unit of its kind in the city, and its mission since it was started in February is to help, not arrest, people [with problems]. It’s part of a broader effort in the Police Department to work with the community. …

“Sullivan, Driscoll, and Linsky, who make up Mattapan’s ‘Operation Helping Hands,’ spend two nights a week freed from dispatch calls. Instead, they get to know the people on the streets, figure out what services they need, and try to provide them.

“ ‘You’re one part social worker, one part cop, and one part older brother,’ Sullivan said. …

“The number that [Police Chief William] Evans is most proud of is arrests: for the past year and a half, officers have been locking up fewer and fewer people. The city saw a 15 percent reduction in 2015, followed by the 10 percent drop so far this year.

” ‘When I came on the job, you measured what kind of an officer someone was by quantitative statistics. How many arrests. How many moving violations. We don’t do that anymore,’ Evans said. ‘I think our officers get it: It’s not about throwing people behind bars, it’s about getting them services and opportunities.’

“Driscoll, a 39-year-old father of two, has been on the force for 10 years, all of them in Mattapan. Before that, he served for several years in Watertown. He and Sullivan, a 32-year-old father of a 2-year-old boy, who joined the force three years ago, both grew up in police families, wanting to be officers. When Mattapan Captain Haseeb Hosein decided to start Helping Hands, they were an easy choice.

“ ‘With everything that’s going on in this country, the biggest thing is trust and fear. So how do we break those two barriers down? I think we break it down by building relationships,’ Hosein said. ‘They’re really good guys who understand the environment that we’re in, that we need to go the extra mile.’ ” More.

Getting people services that really create lasting change would be ideal, but who can cavil with de-escalating potential blowups? Ensuring that you don’t make matters worse than they are already is surely an important step.

Photo: Jessica Rinaldi/Globe Staff
“Operation Helping Hands,” made up of two officers and a crisis clinician, is the only Boston Police unit of its kind.

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In this story from radio show Studio 360, we learn that music is intriguing to animals, at the very least arousing their curiosity and perhaps stimulating and soothing them.

“Laurel Braitman is a historian of science and the author of ‘Animal Madness: How Anxious Dogs, Compulsive Parrots, and Elephants in Recovery Help Us Understand Ourselves.’ She’s particularly interested in the mental health of animals in captivity.

“ ‘If their minds aren’t stimulated, they can end up with all sorts of disturbing behaviors,’ she says. Braitman wondered if music — so often soothing to people, but usually foisted on animals without their permission — could help counter their symptoms of anxiety and depression.

“That led Braitman to arrange a series of concerts for all-animal audiences: gorillas in a Boston zoo and a small herd of bison in Golden Gate Park. Recently, the bluegrass band Black Prairie played for the residents of Wolf Haven wolf sanctuary in Tenino, Washington. …

“Can we say that they liked it?

“Researchers are trying to answer this question in controlled experiments where they observe whether animals move toward or away from speakers, depending on the music.

“Dr. Charles Snowdon of the University of Wisconsin collaborates with a composer, David Teie, who writes music tailored for certain species. They base their compositions on sonic frequencies the animals use in nature. Their music for domestic cats features tempos of purring or suckling kittens; small monkeys called cotton-top tamarins, on the other hand, got music that sounds remarkably like nails on a blackboard. ‘It is pretty godawful if you ask me,’ Snowdon says. ‘But the tamarins dig it.’ ”

More here.

Music for Wolves: Black Prairie from Aubree Bernier-Clarke on Vimeo.

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John-E-tughole

An article by Gretchen Reynolds at the New York Times “Well” blog details new research on the stress-reducing effects of walking in nature.

Reynolds writes, “City dwellers [have] a higher risk for anxiety, depression and other mental illnesses than people living outside urban centers …

“Various studies have found that urban dwellers with little access to green spaces have a higher incidence of psychological problems than people living near parks and that city dwellers who visit natural environments have lower levels of stress hormones immediately afterward than people who have not recently been outside.

“But just how a visit to a park or other green space might alter mood has been unclear. Does experiencing nature actually change our brains in some way that affects our emotional health? That possibility intrigued Gregory Bratman, a graduate student at the Emmett Interdisciplinary Program in Environment and Resources at Stanford University.

In his “new study, which was published last week in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, Mr. Bratman and his collaborators decided to closely scrutinize what effect a walk might have on a person’s tendency to brood. … Such rumination [is] strongly associated with increased activity in a portion of the brain known as the subgenual prefrontal cortex.”

The results: “As might have been expected, walking along the highway had not soothed people’s minds. Blood flow to their subgenual prefrontal cortex was still high and their broodiness scores were unchanged. But the volunteers who had strolled along the quiet, tree-lined paths showed slight but meaningful improvements in their mental health, according to their scores on the questionnaire. They were not dwelling on the negative aspects of their lives as much as they had been before the walk.” More here.

As we used to chant to our overexcited dog when we picked her up after a grooming, “I’m calm, you’re calm.”

Try out this Derek Wolcott poem for your walk in the woods. It is read on SoundCloud by my husband’s college classmate, Jon Kabat-Zinn.

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